Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Scribblings: The Truly Unprecedented Academic Boycott of Israel

YOU ARE IN: Home Page > Topics > Anti-Zionism

Tzvi Fleischer


The academic boycott of Israel, led by a semi-official Palestinian entity and adopted by many academic supporters of the Palestinian "cause" in the West, is a bizarre and unique violation of academic freedom that appears to be truly unprecedented in history.

In July, PACBI, the semi-official Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel, issued new even more comprehensive guidelines for its demand that everyone completely shun all Israeli academic institutions. While the guidelines claim not to target individual Israeli academics based on their "identity (such as citizenship, race, gender, or religion)" in practice they are written to do exactly that. 

They start with the insistence that "all Israeli academic institutions, unless proven otherwise, are subject to boycott" and "these institutions, all their activities, and all the activities they sponsor or support must be boycotted." 

The 14 guidelines blacklist, among other things, not only all academic conferences involving Israeli universities, all academic journals based at Israeli universities; all "serving as external reviewers for dissertations, writing recommendations or other forms of refereeing... at Israeli universities" and also all joint "research and development" not only involving Israeli universities but also any that feature involvement by any "corporations and academic institutions" which have "institutional agreements" with any part of an Israeli university.

On top of this, there are two ridiculously broad "catch-all" provisions which essentially amount to licensing the boycott of individual Israeli academics in the majority of circumstances.

One discusses "normalisation projects" which says that "Academic activities and projects involving Palestinians and/or other Arabs on one side and Israelis on the other (whether bi- or multi-lateral) that are based on the false premise of symmetry/parity between the oppressors and the oppressed... "are... morally reprehensible forms of normalisation that ought to be boycotted." The only exception is when the project is defined as one of "‘co-resistance' rather than co-existence." In other words, all dialogue involving any Israeli academic who does not wholeheartedly adopt the PACBI program - including presumably boycotts - must be boycotted.

And then there is a sneaky little paragraph about "common-sense boycotts" which PACBI says are "beyond the scope of the PACBI institutional boycott criteria" - but are nonetheless encouraged in PACBI's official guidelines. This section says that Israeli academics should be subject to whatever measures that "conscientious citizens around the world may call for in response to what they widely perceive as egregious individual complicity in, responsibility for, or advocacy of violations of international law" and says that such "offenders" should be subject to "any lawful form of protest, including boycott." In practice, this is used as a justification to boycott any Israeli academic who does not adopt PACBI's extreme narrative.

While BDS supporters engage in ridiculous intellectual contortions to attempt to deny it, this is a call for a massive and unprecedented violation of the principle of academic freedom. As Dr. Cary Nelson, former head of the American Association of University Professors noted earlier this year, the PACBI academic boycott provisions "represent not only a relentless assault on academic freedom" but also, as a whole, amount to "police state style regulations aimed at ending higher education as we know it."

I have used the word "unprecedented" to describe the academic boycott a number of times. Here's why. Of course, nothing similar is done to the academic institutions of any country other than Israel - including ones with unequivocally much worse human rights records where the universities are much more directly government-controlled. Not North Korea, not Sudan, not Zimbabwe, not Syria, not Iran, not Burma and in the past, not Saddam Hussein's Iraq, not Taliban Afghanistan, not Stalin's Russia, and not Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

PACBI and other boycott supporters claim to have a single precedent - apartheid South Africa. PACBI's guidelines say there must be no contact with Israeli institutions "as was the case with all South African academic institutions under apartheid."

But guess what - not only is the comparison of Israel to apartheid South Africa absurd and pernicious, it also appears to be simply untrue that a similar boycott was once implemented against South African universities.

Prof. Zachary Braiterman of Syracuse University recently researched the claim that there was a similar academic boycott of South African universities in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. He was unable to find any formal document announcing or systematising any such boycott, not at the UN nor any other body.

A group of British university academics in 1965 did make a declaration "protesting" racism at South African universities, and pledged they would "not apply for or accept academic posts in South African universities" but that is hardly the same thing as the comprehensive boycott on all contact advocated against Israel. Similarly, some individuals who went to South Africa to give lectures at universities were criticised for doing so - but again this is hardly similar to what PACBI advocates.

In fact, Braiterman was able to find considerable evidence that Western academics overwhelmingly rejected anything like a comprehensive academic boycott of South African universities even while supporting economic boycotts.

In other words, the academic boycott of Israel really does appear to be completely unprecedented.

The truth is the academic boycott of Israel is actually a facet of the "anti-normalisation" mania which grips much of Palestinian society, which typically sees any non-violent contact with anyone or anything Israeli as tantamount to treason. PACBI hardly hides this link - its guidelines talk about the evil of "normalisation" of Israeli academic institutions repeatedly. This anti-normalisation mania is actually rooted in the Arab boycott of all institutions associated with the Jews of Palestine that began in the 1920s.

It is also, after terrorism, one of the ugliest manifestations of Palestinian nationalism - essentially demanding that all Palestinians treat all Israeli Jews as faceless, eternal enemies, and not human beings.

Partisans of the Palestinian "cause" do Palestinians no favours by assisting and encouraging them, via the academic boycott, to engage in this ugly, illiberal and counter-productive tendency.

Most recent items in: Anti-Zionism