Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Qanta Ahmed: BDS harms Israeli Arabs

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Following my previous blog post which looked at how the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement undermines peace-building efforts between Israelis and Palestinians and discriminates against Israeli Arabs, an article in Haaretz by Dr. Qanta Ahmed has exemplified this point.

Ahmed is a physician and author of Pakistani descent, and on her website describes herself as an "anti-Islamist Muslim". In her article "The poverty of boycotting Israel" she makes a scathing attack on the BDS movement for the harm caused by academic and cultural boycotts, and especially the damage potentially being done to the advancement of Israeli Arabs.

Ahmed has some experience with the importance of academic freedom, having been a student in Saudi Arabia - writing that academic freedom was her "only freedom" there. She also pointedly notes that there was no boycott opposed to the "gender apartheid" and "legislated male supremacy" she experienced in Saudi Arabia.

Ahmed is most stinging in her attack on the BDS movement for harming the advancement of Israeli Arabs. She writes that Israeli Arabs are becoming highly educated and advancing in the workplace, and the BDS campaign undermines their ability to participate in the "global marketplace of ideas":

"The reality is simple: Calling for an Israeli boycott invites no reprisals. It is more than socially acceptable; it is a badge of honor brandished by those claiming to defend ‘minorities'. Yet ironically, while the costs of boycott will be shouldered by every Israeli, the major costs will be born by Israel's own minority population, including Israeli Muslims of Palestinian heritage. This is a population which is for the first time becoming highly educated, advancing in the workplace, collaborating with their fellow Israeli Jewish citizens and eager to enter the global marketplace of ideas. These Israeli Muslim Arabs are the keystones to lasting peace in the region. No one else is better positioned to bridge conflicts and cultures and yet no one else will be more penalized by boycott.

Academic freedom means the freedom to collaborate, the freedom to cooperate, the freedom to communicate, the freedom to investigate, and the freedom to know the other. Isolating Israelis imposes upon all of us outside of Israel the worst kind of self-isolation, one which denies our engagement not only with the richly intellectual and extraordinarily productive Israeli academic community but access to those minorities facing the greatest challenges in Israel. The boycott flattens the painstakingly earned, inch-by-inch progress towards coexistence within and outside Israel; and coexistence is surely the primary step towards regional peace. At this discouraging time of increasing academic and cultural siege, every thoughtful academic should join me in lending their name and their reputation to fighting the boycott."

It is also interesting to note that Ahmed is full of praise for Israel's Technion University for its programs to advance Israeli Arab students. This is the same Technion University that the University of Sydney's Students' Representative Council wanted to boycott in April:

"When, eight years ago, the Technion examined their own data, they were dismayed to find a high drop-out rate amongst Arab undergraduates, even though they had met the rigorous entry criteria to a university consistently rated amongst the top three science institutes in the world. This was an untenable loss of intellectual talent for the university and in their mind, for Israel. Since then, the Beatrice Weston Unit for the Advancement of Students has developed one-on-one peer mentorship by and for Israeli Arab undergraduates, with men mentoring men and women mentoring women in view of the cultural sensitivities. The program was funded by Jewish American philanthropists intent on serving all sectors of Technion's students, majority and minority alike.

In the program, Technion students run after-class tutorials to help each other keep pace with the rapid absorption of knowledge required; sometimes, student mentors intervene in family dilemmas to advocate on behalf of a fellow student to his distressed family. They do so by mediating between student and parents struggling to resolve traditional cultural mores with the demands of advanced education. They render personal counseling on these and other adjustment difficulties, concentration and learning difficulties and the challenges of making vocational choices.

In less than a decade, the Weston Advancement Unit has improved the Technion's Israeli Arab undergraduate retention rate by over 50 percent, with more gains likely. But The Technion's support extends beyond their undergraduates. Many Israeli Arabs attend Arabic medium schools, so the move to the Hebrew-language university is a significant challenge. In response, candidates identified as Technion material are given intense year-long programs preparing them (and their Hebrew) - developed by the university itself... The advancement program has been so effective at closing disparity gaps that it has now been rolled out across the institute and offered to every Technion undergrad who needs it, minority or not. After winning national awards, this program is being emulated at other Israeli institutions at government request..."

The BDS movement would have people boycott the Technion University and any of its students and staff because it is an Israeli institution.  While they sometimes offer additional arguments about the Technion supposedly being complicit with the Israeli military, this appears to be an ex post facto justication designed for PR purposes, as they generally call for all Israeli universities to be boycotted without offering an explanation other than that they are Israeli.  At the end of the day, boycotting institutions that promote co-existence and dialogue does not advance the cause of peace, and as Ahmed notes, will ultimately hurt the very people that BDS claims to be acting for.

Sharyn Mittelman

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