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Attacks on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Backfire

(Photo: Kate Ausburn / Flickr)

While the movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions does not yet have widespread US public support, proposed reactionary legislation against it has given the campaign exposure that it otherwise was unlikely to achieve.

In December, the American Studies Association (ASA) answered the call from Palestinian civil society and endorsed the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, a milestone for the controversial Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which has only recently begun to make inroads in the United States.

The Palestinian-led Boycott Divestment and Sanction campaign began in 2005 to put political and economic pressure on Israel to end its violation of human rights and meet its obligations under international law. The nonviolent movement seeks to end the occupation and colonization of Palestinian lands, recognize the rights and equality of Arab-Palestinian living inside Israel and respect the right of return for Palestinian refugees living in the diaspora as guaranteed under UN resolution 194.

Speaking at a press conference in Ramallah last week, Omar Barghouti, founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, spoke about the recent successes. “The movement has really reached a tipping point. We’re seeing a massive and accelerating growth of the BDS movement over the last couple of months; this has led to analysis in the pro-Israel establishment that BDS has become a strategic threat to Israel’s regime of occupation, colonialism and apartheid.”

The 5,000 member ASA is the third major US academic association – along with the Asian American (AASA) and Native American and Indigenous Studies associations (NAISA) – to endorse the academic boycott over the past year. The boycott itself does not inhibit dialog or cooperation between individual United States and Israeli academics, but instead compels its members not to collaborate with Israeli academic institutions seen as complicit in the violation of human rights and international law.

“It is widely acknowledged that Israeli academic institutions are deeply embedded in the system of oppression and domination practiced by the Israeli state,” Samia M. Al-Botmeh , a Palestinian professor from Birzeit University in Ramallah, Palestine, told Truthout. “Israeli universities and research institutions cooperate closely with the security-military establishment through research and teaching activities. Israeli universities have never dissociated themselves from the occupation regime, despite the more than four decades of the systematic stifling of Palestinian education.”

The ASA’s endorsement of the boycott served not only as an indictment of Israeli universities’ complicity in state human rights violations, but also as a message to the US government, which provides military and other support to Israel. A statement on the ASA’s website also points to the “documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students.”

For years, the BDS movement remained on the margins of US public discourse as criticism of Israeli policies was considered taboo. However, recent events indicate a growing space to speak out against the occupation.

As NYU professor Maria Saldana told Truthout, “It (boycott) signals an intellectual sea change, a demand on our part to be able to express our views about this particular occupation without the threat of retaliation or censorship.”


The Israeli government retains widespread public support in the United States, and the blowback from the boycott decision has been both predictable and fierce. Since the ASA vote in December, professors supportive of the boycott have received abusive hate mail, while many prominent US politicians, journalist and academics alike have condemned the boycott as anti-Semitic and unfairly singling out Israel.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Harvard president Lawrence Summers described the boycott as “abhorrent,” and “anti-Semitic in effect.”

Responding to the accusation of anti-Semitism, the US campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’s (USCBI) website made this statement: “The practices of discrimination, occupation, ethnic cleansing, illegal settlement and territorial expansion are not based on Judaism but on the political philosophy of Zionism and on the ultimate claim to the whole territory of ‘Greater Israel’ (EretzIsrael) that has no basis in international law, political history, or even in most versions of Jewish religious or cultural tradition. . . . Indeed, what is really anti-Semitic is the attempt to identify all Jews with a philosophy that many find abhorrent to the traditions of social justice and universality that Judaism enshrines.”

Roz Rothstein, CEO of the pro-Israeli campus group StandWithUS disagrees, telling Truthout, “The boycott is anti-Semitic in effect if not in intent. It promotes a double standard by singling out the only Jewish country in the world, demanding it meet standards not expected of any other nation, defaming it with false accusations and blaming it alone for the lack of peace.”

Kēhaulani Kauanui, Wesleyan professor on theboard of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel spoke to Truthout about the question of why Israel, in particular, is the target of BDS. First of all, Kauanui noted, Israel receives $3.3 billion per year in US aid and weapons – supplies it uses in the service of “war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

“Israel has violated more UN resolutions than any other country in the world, and the United States has consistently protected Israel through its Security Council veto power,” she added. “And in the United States, Zionists aggressively silence and work to censor (and censure) critical discussions about Israel.”

The question of Boycotts

Following the ASA vote, the largest academic group in the nation (American Association of University Professors AAUP) came out strongly against the boycott, stating it constitutes a violation of academic freedom.

Since then, numerous US college presidents and Israeli academics have publicly condemned the action, arguing that the boycott restricts dialog and stifles academic freedom.

Speaking to Truthout, a spokesperson for the Israeli Academic Monitor (IAM), which monitors and exposes anti-Israeli activity on Israeli campuses said, “We take the position of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and some 200 presidents of universities in the United States that reject academic boycott as a violation of academic freedom.”

Those endorsing the boycott disagree, arguing that it does nothing to hinder the academic freedom of individual Israeli scholars while increasing dialogue about the plight of Palestinians living under occupation.

As American studies professor Alex Lubin wrote, “The resolution does not prevent Israeli scholars from attending the ASA, nor does it prevent American scholars from working with Israeli scholars or from traveling to Israel. The boycott is a simple statement that does nothing to violate academic freedom – a privilege that only some enjoy in Israel/Palestine – but does very much to raise consciousness about the very real Israeli violations of Palestinian human and academic rights.”

Moreover, according to Palestinian professor Samia M. Al-Botmeh, the focus on freedom of access to grants, networks, fellowships and other benefits for Israeli academics obfuscates the fact that Palestinians are routinely denied the most basic of freedoms.

“The privileging of academic freedom above other, more fundamental, rights flies in the face of the idea of universal human rights,” Al-Botmeh told Truthout. “How can the academic freedom of a sector of Israeli society be more important than the basic right to a free and dignified life for all Palestinians, academics included?”

Protection of Freedom Law

The debate within the academy over academic freedom has been overshadowed by the introduction of anti-boycott legislation in both New York and Maryland earlier this year. The legislation, which would punish institutions endorsing the boycott, was withdrawn after numerous educators and lawmakers denounced the bills as an assault on academic freedom.

Speaking to this, NYU professor Maria Saldana said to Truthout,” It reflects the power of the Zionist lobby in New York and in the state legislature. We had great success in stopping the first legislation, but it has been revised and submitted again.”

Earlier this month, Congressmen Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) introduced a similar bill in the House, the “Protect Academic Freedom Act.” If passed, the legislation would halt government funding to any American academic institutions that endorses the academic boycott of Israel.

“The Protect Academic Freedom Act represents the first legislation that defends Israel against discriminatory boycotts which impede rather than advance the peace process and that seek to deny Israelis the right to free speech on American campuses” said former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.

Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, expressed his organization’s support for the legislation in an email to Truthout.

However, this legislation, which purports to protect academic freedom, has been widely criticized as violating the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech – including the freedom to boycott.

“It’s a threat, it’s obvious; it’s contradictory; they use it to intimidate us,” said Saldana. “But it’s also a blessing. Because of this legislation, we have had a lot of solidarity from academics at other institutions, individuals who might not support the boycott but nonetheless see this legislation to be just an obvious retaliation and infringement on academic freedom. Furthermore this ‘lawfare’ has brought exposure to the BDS movement that was previously unimaginable.”

Increased Exposure

On February 3, the editorial board at the historically pro-Israel New York Times published an op-ed piece officially condemning the anti-boycott legislation, saying it would have a “chilling effect on academic freedom.” Numerous academic associations, lawmakers and university presidents who were unsupportive of the boycott have nonetheless come out against the legislation.

Speaking about this, Omar Barghouti said, “They (congress) did us a favor. The AAUP has condemned the legislation. The New York Times editorial board is saying it is in violation [of] the US Constitution, and the president of Columbia University, who led the struggle against the academic boycott of Israel, has denounced the anti-boycott legislation. This bill is opening a huge alliance for us with US liberals who otherwise would not support BDS.”

And while the BDS movement does not yet have widespread public support in the United States, the reactionary legislation has given the academic boycott exposure that it was unlikely to achieve.

As Barghouti said earlier this week in Ramallah, “Trying to suppress freedom of speech in the US, going against a tactic, boycott, which is time-honored and used in civil rights movement in US, from Montgomery bus boycott onward, apartheid movement and so on, is a lost battle.”

Shifting Ground

BDS has enjoyed rapid growth over the past few years, and recent developments in the United States have not gone unnoticed in Jerusalem.

Speaking to a group of Jewish Americans in Jerusalem, Prime Minster Netanyahu said that Israel needs to “delegitimize the delegitimizer . . . I think that it is important that the boycotters be exposed for what they are; they are classical anti-Semites in modern garb.”

Last week, a special session was held in Jerusalem by top Israeli officials to discuss the allocation of $100,000,000 ($30 million) to combat BDS, a threat that has been moved to the office of strategic affairs, putting the nonviolent boycott in the same company as Iran and other “existential” threats.

As Omar Barghouti said, “The qualitative leaps of the BDS movement in the last couple of months has created a real panic in the Israel government.”

According to the Middle East Monitor, the session covered a number of areas where Israel could combat the growing BDS’s threat. These include increased legal action against pro-boycott organizations, encouraging anti-boycott legislation in friendly capitals, and ratcheting up the intelligence gathering on pro-BDS people and organizations.

As the head of Palestinian NGO Network said at a press conference in Ramallah last week, “There is a war, no less than a war by the Israeli lobby and the Israeli government against Palestinian NGOs that support the boycott. They’re trying to cut off any sources of funding, using ‘lawfare’ to criminalize support for BDS and suppress freedom of speech.”

Speaking to the effect of Israel’s response in the United States, UC Riverside professor and USACBI Organizing Collective member David Lloyd told Truthout, “BDS is now [considered] a strategic threat second only to Iran. We can therefore anticipate an even more vicious campaign of suppression in future months which will have a very deleterious effect on conditions of public discourse in this country. But the likelihood is that this kind of repressive blowback will suffer its own blowback. Coercion is not a very effective way of dealing with a non-violent, justice-based movement, betraying the weakness of the arguments rather than the rightness of what BDS opponents have to say.”

While pressure mounts on BDS supporters within the United States, Israel and elsewhere, to many, the extreme response is indication of the movement’s growing relevance.

As former Palestinian presidential candidate Dr. Mustafa Barghouti told Truthout in Ramallah last week, “We understand that the Israeli severe reaction and anger shows that BDS has been effective. As much as the Africa [apartheid] was stopped by popular non-violent resistance and the BDS movement, we are seeing the same phenomenon in Palestine.”

And while the battle will continue to rage in Jerusalem and Washington, some in Palestine are cautiously optimistic.

Tamer, a student from Birzeit University outside of Ramallah, told this reporter, “We see that our struggle is linked to the larger world. From Ramallah, to Tel Aviv to New York. It seems that BDS is become a growing part of this.”

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