An academic boycott of Israel has gathered steam in the wake of the latest fighting between Israel and Hamas and the resulting devastation of homes, schools, universities, mosques and utility plants in Gaza.
Since the war began, more than 2,000 Palestinians and 67 Israelis have been killed and at least three universities and 148 schools destroyed in Gaza. Electricity, clean water and working bathrooms are in scarce supply. About 220,000 refugees are crammed into U.N. schools, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, making it impossible for the school year to start.
The devastation has increased support for the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, according to the boycott’s organizers. The boycott, which started in 2004, asks academics to refrain from any form of cooperation with Israeli institutions, to block international financing for Israel academic projects and to support Palestinian institutions directly. Many academics disagree with the boycott and call it naïve or irrelevant, but it and similar efforts have nevertheless picked up speed in the last few weeks.
On August 17, the rectors in charge of 128 out of all 180 universities in Turkey came out in favor of the boycott. Ten days earlier, 1,200 Spanish professors issued a demand to their university leaders to “break academic relationships with Israel.” Earlier in the month the National Union of Students in the United Kingdom voted for a boycott of Israel.
“All of these are just examples of the boycott intensifying as a result of the attacks on Gaza,” says Samia Al-Botmeh, a member of the boycott campaign and professor of women’s studies at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
The American Studies Association decided to back the boycott last December before the Gaza war. Rachel Rubin, a professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a member of the association, says she was proud of the decision.
“I am in favor of boycotting Israeli institutions, not specific people, because I believe in academic freedom,” she says. Rubin is angered by the inability of Palestinian students and academics to come and go from the territories freely. “I came of age during the anti-apartheid movement and I see a lot of powerful echoes between the two situations.”
Rubin adds that Israel is highly dependent on American money and political support. She says that the more U.S. universities spurn Israeli institutions, the more attention the issue is going to get: “I bet most Americans couldn’t find Palestine on a map and we’re trying to use what tools we have to change that.”
Simona Bar-Haim at Ben-Gurion University is part of the Israeli side of a collaborative effort with Palestinian scientists to improve the rehabilitation of teenagers with cerebral palsy. “We are doing a tremendous job for disability advocacy in the region and I don’t want to wait for politicians to bring about a peace for us to do this,” she says.
Bar-Haim describes herself as a “die-hard lefty” and is far from approving Israeli government policy, but believes that those in Europe and North America who get involved with the boycott are misled. “It’s a very superficial thing to do. I think they’re sitting comfortably in cafés with a cappuccino and saying that ‘something must be done.’” She says one of the only ways a lasting peace will be achieved is through Israeli and Palestinian interactions that don’t involve weapons.
The boycott organizers disagree. “The Palestinians working with Israelis are normalizing a colonial process,” says Al-Botmeh. “They’re pretending that the Israeli scientist is just like any researcher, but they’re part and parcel of the oppression. Cooperation works in Israel’s favor because with careful marketing it whitewashes their crimes.”