On some of the more serious appeals to boycott Israeli academic institutions
Last Thursday the LSE was host to an event jointly put on by the LSESU Palestine Society and LSESU Israel Society debating the motion that the house believes in an academic boycott of Israel. The motion failed, which has pleased those who think a boycott is harmful (though such a result ought to be taken with a pinch of salt, since the audience sample would not be scientific, and rather than simply asking audience participants to raise their hands on whether they support the motion, should be asked whether they had their minds changed after the debate had taken place – to gauge the usefulness of the speakers’ presentations. Moreover, this would save time vetting an audience as well).
On the side for a boycott was Dr John Chalcraft who is currently a reader in the History and Politics of Empire/Imperialism in the Department of Government at the LSE. He argued that an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions is the appropriate tactic to take in response to Israel’s disregard for the rights of Palestinians, (which includes disregard for UN resolutions) and its unceasing apartheid society.
Furthermore, the boycott would be taken in opposition to Israeli academic institutions’ close proximity to military operations. To give Chalcraft’s example, the Zefat Academic College in Israel holds a General Security Service (GSS) programme, which is notorious for its use of torture on occupied territory. According to Chalcraft there were plans to move this programme to the prestigious Hebrew University, but owing to the concerted efforts by the pro-boycott lobby the programme stayed put. This at once shows the close relationship government has with its academic institutions in Israel, as well as how effective the boycott has been on achieving results.
Opposing the boycott was Daniel Hochhauser, the Kathleen Ferrier Professor of Medical Oncology at UCL who specialises in the treatment of gastrointestinal cancer at the University College London Hospital (UCLH). He began on a personal note stating he personally benefits from institutional relations with top Israeli universities and individual academics with whom he enjoys what he called medical diplomacy. As for Israeli institutions themselves, some 20% of students there are Palestinian Arabs, and so he confronts the notion that those institutions are segregationist. He admits that more could be done for the social mobility of that group of people, but denies that a boycott should be conducted on this very basis.
As for the motion, Hochhauser asks whether the boycott is universally applicable by its proponents, by which he means whether they would call for the boycott of US institutions on the grounds of the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, Chinese institutions for Tibet, Turkish institutions for the Kurds, and whether we could feasibly boycott our own institutions?
The debate turned to the notion of academic freedom, which is the dilemma of the motion. By advancing a boycott universities would be advocating a position on political grounds, something which the opponent of the motion argues universities are not placed to do. Part of the decision to target Israeli academic institutions is what has been called their institutional complicity in the supposed crimes of the government. It was argued that supporters of the motion cannot have it both ways; either they are consistent with their attitude to universities having political motives or they admit their hypocrisy. A position, in principle, I would agree with on the grounds that I support academic freedom from government influence, even if that university is nationalised. It is here that the argument for a boycott becomes compelling, but if this is to be the case then academic boycotts must be levelled to any institution that is complicit with the national government. On which case Israel is only one case in point, and whether we agree with the politics of the government or think the country should exist in the first place is wholly irrelevant to the debate – something Dr John Chalcraft was not willing to cooperate with, since his appeal to boycott appears to be predicated on his opposition to “occupied land”.
I myself am interested in hearing the case for why UK academic institutions should support the boycott of certain Israeli institutions in the case where they are perceived to enjoy too close a proximity to the government – not as an opposition to the government, but as a first principle on the freedom of academic institutions. A principle I level against any institution in any country. But I was not compelled by the motion of the house as explained by Dr John Chalcraft, for whom a boycott of other institutions in other countries would be inappropriate, but whose notion of a boycott of Israeli academies seems rather too close to his obvious dislike of the Israeli government.