Less than a year and a half after a British academics’ boycott against Israel failed to take off, 15 West Coast professors are trying to mount the first-ever such campaign in the United States.
In response to Israel’s three-week incursion into Gaza, the American professors launched the US Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel on Jan. 22.
Their battle comes only a few weeks after the Canadian Union of Public Employees of Ontario proposed a province-wide boycott of Israeli academic institutions and as groups from countries all over the world threaten to do the same.
By Monday, the US Campaign said it already had accrued 205 endorsements, 155 from the American academy. But their pro-Israel counterparts around the world are girding for a fight.
“We have to be careful not to over-exaggerate on this, but we also have to be careful not to ignore it,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University and co-founder of the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom. “It is a festering wound and it needs to be countered, not ignored.”
“The danger is not these 15; the danger is if it becomes 500,” he added.
By aiming their campaign against Israeli institutions, the campaign hopes to pressure scholars into speaking out against Israel’s tactics toward the Palestinians, said Sherna Berger Gluck, one of three Jewish organizers on the US Campaign and a professor emerita of history and women’s studies at California State University – Long Beach.
While they won’t be blocking individual students’ educations, the campaign members aim to prevent the commingling of Israeli ideas with those of the rest of the world, she explained.
“An Israeli professor who is an outspoken critic of Israeli policy is not someone we wouldn’t cooperate with if he or she wanted to come to the United States,” Gluck said, emphasizing that her organization is calling for an institutional boycott rather than a boycott on specific professors.
“As with the South African campaign [against the apartheid] we are taking the signal from Palestinian civil society, which called for an academic boycott several years ago,” she added.
Like Gluck, all 14 of the other committee members in the US Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel hail from universities in California.
“It was really the assault on Gaza that mobilized people. Some of us in those two groups thought it was time to join our colleagues in the United Kingdom,” Gluck said. “We decided that this was the time to move.”
In spring 2007, congressional delegates from the University and College Union of the United Kingdom voted to impose a similar boycott of Israeli academic institutions, a decision that received much criticism around the world and was eventually deemed unlawful by their internal legal experts.
“None of these efforts that basically began in Britain have taken off in the United States academia,” Steinberg said, noting that America has no such labor union foundation among American academics. “This is basically a publicity stunt,” he added.
At the time of the British boycott, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger came out expressly against such a campaign, as did the president of Teachers College, Susan Fuhrman.
“Teachers College welcomes dialogue with Israeli scholars and universities and stands with Columbia University President Lee Bollinger in expressing solidarity with them by inviting UCU to boycott us, as well,” Fuhrman said at the time. In the wake of today’s boycott attempt, her position remains firm.
“In the past, President Fuhrman has called boycotts of academic institutions misguided because they silence debate,” said her spokesperson, Joe Levine. “She continues to stand by that.”
And professors around America and throughout the world join Fuhrman in their support of Israeli institutions and academic freedom.
Andrew Marks, founder of the International Academic Friends of Israel, has sent out hundreds of e-mails to listserv members, and his organization is planning a symposium in New York City about the legal aspects of academic boycotts.
“Our role is very, very specific — to try to raise money to pay for the lodging and travel to get international scientists of the highest quality to come to Israel,” said Marks, who is also the chair of the department of physiology and cellular biophysics at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. “As long as that is going on the boycotts won’t be successful.”
Marks calls upon American professors to counter the efforts of Gluck and her team members, to ensure that the anti-Israel academic campaign will stand no chance in the United States.
“It really is dangerous for the international academic community, which is based on collaboration,” Marks said, noting that a boycott of Israeli institutions can only harm Palestinian students, many of whom work in Israeli university laboratories and teaching facilities.
For her part, Gluck says she hopes that American professors — particularly Jews — will speak out against Israel and end cooperation with its institutions.
“One of the things that obviously silences Jewish Americans is the charge of anti-Semitism,” she acknowledged, contending that such silence could actually instigate a worldwide backlash of anti-Semitism — and not necessarily by the Palestinians themselves. But Israel’s academic supporters continue to argue that the American boycott idea is ludicrous, if not downright anti-Semitic.
“Many of these attempts lead to nothing,” said Manfred Gerstenfeld, chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and author of “Academics Against Israel and the Jews” (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2007). “All they want to do is create a further bad image for Israel.”
“Anybody who boycotts Israel and who doesn’t boycott universities that call for murder, like the Palestinian ones, is clearly racist and clearly an anti-Semite,” he added.
Should the US Campaign become any more serious, Gerstenfeld predicts that Jewish organizations will blacklist professors involved with the boycott, and could find their violations of academic freedom cause for removal.
“The first line of defense is through Americans. The professors who’ve adopted this tactic should be criticized by their own peers,” Steinberg said. “The second line of defense should be Israeli faculty members, who should be more involved in countering these types of biases.”
But perhaps most of all, professors who oppose the boycott feel that politics must stay out of academic exchanges.
“Academia that becomes politicized loses its core values, and that’s what Americans need to say to this group,” Steinberg said.