By Nick Riemer
Published in The Australian,
A major national conference on the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign for Palestine will be held at the University of Sydney this week.
Predictably, the conference has been met with stock accusations of anti-Semitism.
With the baselessness of that charge increasingly apparent, it’s a good time to consider a more serious objection to academic BDS: the idea that academics’ duty is to privilege dialogue and debate, not boycott, as the pathway to a more peaceful world.
In fact, BDS springs from the failure of dialogue to secure peace. Initiated in 2005 by more than 170 Palestinian civil-society organisations, the campaign is a response to the blockade, illegal settlements, home demolitions, water theft, checkpoints and summary killings that turn the everyday life of an entire people into a waking nightmare.
It also demands recognition of the UN-mandated right of return of Palestinian refugees — a right that the refugees may or may not choose to exercise.
Palestine is, of course, not the only human rights and peace struggle today — but it is the landmark international one, and victory would set a powerful precedent. It is also one to which academics can, for once, directly contribute. Academics are regularly urged to maximise their impact, but our work is usually conducted at multiple removes from real-world effect: as researchers and lecturers, we mostly advise and teach others, rather than acting ourselves.
When it comes to the Middle East, however, our professional activity forces us to choose sides. Israel has made its universities key components of the intellectual and material infrastructure of the occupation. They play this role in many ways: in large-scale arms research; military training programs; systematic privileges for students in the army; use of academic capital as international smart-washing; a revolving door between the highest levels of academe and government — and even, in several cases, premises on stolen Palestinian land.
That presents academics outside Israel with a choice: do we maintain business as usual with Israeli institutions, even though doing so supports and normalises Israel’s illegal policies? Or do we ethically exert the limited power our profession gives us to advance peace?
The terms of the academic boycott are often misunderstood. The official boycott guidelines ask academics only to boycott Israeli institutions, not individual researchers. No one is boycottable just for being affiliated to an Israeli university. Only officials of Israeli institutions — deans or presidents — or official university-sponsored activities, such as conferences, are subject to BDS.
Academic BDS is not, then, the indiscriminate boycott of all Israeli researchers, as it is often presented. Quite the contrary: it applies only to academics who have chosen to assume leadership roles in key national institutions.
Researchers should ground their politics empirically, in real data. But doing that means abandoning one of our most cherished fictions: the idea that talk will solve the world’s problems. International talks since Oslo have only entrenched the status quo. The Israeli government’s commitment to a settlement extends only to the illegal ones mushrooming over the West Bank, effectively scuttling the two-state solution. Peaceful pressure needs to be exerted on it to reset the power imbalance.
Attending a conference in Tel Aviv as a physicist or an anthropologist will not advance dialogue on justice in the Middle East. Refusing to do so will: the Israeli government’s own response to BDS shows it constitutes a uniquely powerful force for progress in Israel-Palestine.
Academics are usually bit players in the realpolitik of international relations. But boycotting Israeli institutions is one concrete step we can take, in our own domain, to create the conditions in which a real dialogue can start.
Nick Riemer is a lecturer in English and linguistics at the University of Sydney.