Common questions on BDS & the academic boycott of Israel

What is Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)?
The call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions is a Palestinian-initiated response to Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, its siege of Gaza, and its systematic oppression of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Launched in 2005 by an unprecedented coalition of over 170 Palestinian civil society organisations on the model of the successful campaign against South African apartheid, BDS promotes basic equality, practical peacebuilding and democracy in Israel-Palestine. It categorically rejects all kinds of discrimination, including anti-Semitism, and aspires to achieving basic equality for all people in Israel-Palestine, regardless of race or religion.

What exactly does the academic boycott involve?
The international academic boycott is part of the wider BDS movement. It applies to Israeli institutions, not individual academics, and calls on academics to refuse to participate in or facilitate official, institution-level activities with Israeli universities, such as, in particular, conferences convened or sponsored by Israeli institutions, and institutional exchange agreements. These and similar arrangements contribute to the legitimisation of Israel in the eyes of the international community by normalizing academic relations with it. The boycott call is predicated on the empirical fact that all official Israeli academic institutions currently actively support Israel’s policies towards Palestine.

A large body of evidence shows that Israeli academic institutions deliberately and intensively support the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory through, among other things, a variety of lucrative military research and training efforts. Other areas in which this support is manifested include obstruction of Palestinian access to education and academic freedom; in some cases, the maintenance of premises on stolen Palestinian land; or, simply, the failure to officially condemn Israel’s policies, thereby contributing to their legitimisation. As staff at the University of Sydney we have a responsibility not to work with institutions that either remain silent while the Israeli state destroys the educational infrastructure of Palestine, or are actively complicit with this destruction. If an Israeli university did not support Israel’s current policies towards Palestine in any way, it would not be subject to the boycott.

The academic boycott does not apply to individual Israeli academics or students: mere institutional affiliation to the Israeli academy is not a sufficient condition for applying the boycott. BDS is, furthermore, a tactic, not a dogma: the decision to boycott or not to boycott in any particular instance should be the result of an assessment of the ways in which a particular university can be pressured to withdraw its support for or complicity in Israel’s human rights violations and illegality. Finally, BDS is a pluralistic movement and does not mandate any one way of responding to the boycott call.

Shouldn’t we be encouraging dialogue between Israel and Palestine instead?
As Nelson Mandela famously remarked on negotiation with the government during apartheid in South Africa, “only free men can negotiate”. Genuine dialogue and negotiation require parity among the participants. Over 160 countries acknowledge the illegality of Israel’s Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank and recognise that these settlements and the widespread abuses of Palestinian human rights are a significant impediment to peace. Parity certainly does not exist between the parties to the negotiations over Palestine. It’s impossible for a hostage to have a genuine dialogue with their kidnapper. Decades of officially sponsored negotiations have only strengthened Israel’s hand. While talks continue, more illegal settlements are built. Only a logic of pressure holds any chance of creating the conditions necessary for a breakthrough. Israel’s marked hostility to the BDS movement as opposed to other forms of Palestine advocacy is evidence of the political traction BDS is gaining.

What’s the connection with USyd?
Sydney University is a conspicuous supporter of Israel, maintaining formal connections to a number of Israeli academic institutions through well funded exchange programs, such as the exchange with the Hebrew University, and a new partnership with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Sydney has refused to distance itself from the Australian government’s position on the extreme fringe of international public opinion on Israel, Tony Abbot having declared “I’d like to think that nowhere in the world [does Israel] have a stauncher friend than us”. Through its active support of Israeli institutions the University of Sydney effectively endorses – and is therefore complicit with – Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, and helps Israel to whitewash its acute human rights violations.

Why does BDS target Israel specifically?
Unlike many other instances of alleged or proven human rights abuse in the world, Israel’s breaches of international law are massively supported by the US and its allies, including Australia. This imposes an obligation on people in these countries to speak out. Attempts to discredit BDS on the grounds that its supporters show selective concern for Israel/Palestine over other situations of oppression are mistaken both factually and in principle. These criticisms are factually mistaken since BDS targets Israel’s crimes against Palestine precisely as flagrant instances of oppression and discrimination, thereby contributing to the broader struggle for a just world. Many BDS supporters, such as the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, are at the forefront of other campaigns for human rights. Members of the Sydney Staff for BDS group are also active in the refugee rights movement, antiracism campaigns, the environment movement, the NTEU and progressive politics more broadly.

Such criticism is also wrong in principle: it is no argument against a political position that it concentrates on one particular point within a broader spectrum of issues. Campaign focuses are chosen as a function of particular political circumstances and with a view to what is achievable. The campaign against coal-seam gas in NSW cannot be reasonably criticized for not also directly addressing other international environmental issues. This is exactly analogous to the relation between the movement for justice in Palestine and the wider struggle for peace and justice in the world.

BDS and academic freedom
Far from infringing academic freedom, BDS promotes it by drawing attention to Israel’s denial of basic academic opportunities to Palestinians. Clearly, activities or actions in support of oppression and the denial of basic rights cannot be justified by appeals to “academic freedom”. This applies straightforwardly to Israeli universities’ support for the oppression of Palestinians. In any case, Israeli academics are only affected by BDS if they choose to participate in official institutional activities over and beyond their affiliation with an Israeli university.

BDS and racism
BDS is opposed to all forms of discrimination including racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and sexual discrimination. Targets of BDS are identified as a function of their support for Israel’s human rights violations, not their race or nationality. International companies and organisations that support Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory are a key focus of the BDS campaign. They include Veolia, Adidas, G4S, Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar. Organisations which support BDS regularly work with a range of Jewish and Israeli activists, academics, authors etc. The Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney is no exception: it frequently hosts and supports a range of Israeli and Jewish academics and speakers.

Why should the NTEU get involved?
Israeli policies severely restrict the lives and futures of our Palestinian colleagues and their students, including their right to education and their freedom of movement, to say nothing of their access to basic resources, including electricity and water. On January 22, 2014, the Israeli military launched an attack on the Palestinian Al Quds University. Rubber-coated steel bullet rounds were fired at students by the Israeli military and more than 100 students suffered from excessive tear-gas inhalation. The students and academics of Birzeit University, located in the West Bank near Ramallah, are required to pass through checkpoints manned by Israeli soldiers where they are interrogated and searched and subjected to violence and humiliation. The Israeli military has frequently entered the university itself, made arrests, and even used blockades and curfews to close down the entire campus. We cannot remain silent when our own institution refuses to act against these abuses.

Furthermore, one of the NTEU’s members, Associate Prof. Jake Lynch, is currently being targeted after refusing to support an application for a fellowship under a joint scheme linking Sydney University with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in response to the BDS call. The NTEU has already supported Lynch’s right to exercise his academic freedom to implement the boycott. There is no reason to offer our solidarity to him but to withhold it from Palestinian colleagues, who face far more serious attacks on a daily basis.

The union movement has always had an internationalist focus. The struggle for working people’s rights depends on global solidarity. The BDS campaign is supported by a growing range of unions, professional associations and other organizations internationally, including the University of Johannesburg, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, the American Studies Association, national trade union federations in South Africa, UK, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, the Basque Country, Brazil and other countries across Latin America, in addition to scores of national and local unions, including the Maritime Union of Australia and the Queensland Teachers’ Union.

Download this document as a pdf: Sydney staff for BDS fact sheet

9 thoughts on “Common questions on BDS & the academic boycott of Israel

  1. Hi there, I’m confused about one thing. Aboriginal Sovereignty was never ceded after the colonial invasion of Australia. The University of Sydney stands directly on stolen Gadigal land, appropriated through systematic persecution and ethnic cleansing, and indeed is a monument to that.

    Further, the University of Sydney has deeply inextricable ties with the Australian Commonwealth Government, which is responsible for the ongoing racist intervention in the Northern Territory, the extremely large gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians (average life expectancy for Aboriginal Australians is shorter than that of Palestinian Arabs) and (through funding) the disproportionately high incarceration rates of Indigenous Australians relative to population size.

    Given these issues, my question is: how can staff at Sydney University live with supporting a call for an academic boycott of Israeli universities without adhering to BDS’s principles in their own situations, i.e. by immediately resigning from their posts and also protesting against their (former) employer? How can those outside begin to take them seriously when they refuse to lead by example, rather than mere rhetoric? This is not a question of ‘whataboutery’, rather straightforward hypocrisy. I thank you in advance for your reply.

  2. I find the above comment quite obscene. If ‘Confused’ genuinely cared about Australia’s Indigenous people, he/she would also care about Palestine’s Indigenous people.

    That both Australia and Israel are settler-colonial societies is obvious. That settler-colonial societies are based on the genocide and dispossession of indigenous peoples is also obvious.

    Having said that, there are a number of key differences between the two societies.

    1) Israel discriminates in law against Palestine’s Indigenous, non-Jewish inhabitants, a distinguishing feature of apartheid. Whatever the racism directed at them or the level of socio-economic disadvantage experienced by them, Australia’s Indigenous people are at least equal in law with other Australians.

    2) Israel expelled the bulk of Palestine’s indigenous population into surrounding countries in 1948. Indigenous Australians are not living in refugee camps in PNG and NZ.

    3) Israel, since 1967, has imposed a military occupation on the Palestinian residents (many of whom are refugees ethnically cleansed in 1948) of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, both of which areas have become little more than free fire zones for Israel’s trigger-happy army. Do I need to add that no comparable situation exists here for Australia’s Indigenous people?

  3. @Not Confused I’ve raised a similar query as above on a number of BDS-related sites, and have never received a satisfactory reply. Needless to say, the trend continues here. You have not chosen to answer my question, rather you conveniently skirted around it. Your subsequent assertions are also chock-full or errors, and appear to be parroting ill-informed BDS-sympathetic groupthink without a scintilla of original thought.

    “That both Australia and Israel are settler-colonial societies is obvious”

    How so? How is Israel a settler-colonial society? For a society to be a settler-colony, there has to be a colonial invader, launched from and financed by the Metropole of the colonial Empire. Unlike Britain in 1788, where was the ‘Israeli’/’Jewish’ metropole in 1948? In fact, there wasn’t one, because there has been a sustained Israelite presence in what is modern-day Israel for thousands of years. The only thing that could come close to be labelled an Israelite/Jewish ‘metropole’ would be the ancient Israelite capital of…Jerusalem.

    “1) Israel discriminates in law against Palestine’s Indigenous, non-Jewish inhabitants, a distinguishing feature of apartheid”

    Where is this “Palestine” to which you refer? Do you mean the UN Observer State of Palestine? If so, how can “Israel” discriminate against “its” Indigenous, non-Jewish inhabitants, when in fact it is wholly under the control of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza? How can “Apartheid” exist across the border of two independent nation states? I suggest you try thinking for yourself when deploying politically complex terms such as “Apartheid”. For “Apartheid” to exist inside the sovereign nation state of Israel, its ethnic Arab citizens would for example have to be barred from voting, serving in the judiciary, parliament or military, and cohabiting with Jewish citizens, amongst many other considerations. In fact, the exact opposite is the case in Israel. But fair dinkum, I’d wager you’ve never been within a continental cooee of the Middle East, so how would you know what actually happens on the ground?

    “2) Israel expelled the bulk of Palestine’s indigenous population into surrounding countries in 1948. Indigenous Australians are not living in refugee camps in PNG and NZ.”

    Indigenous Australians were wiped out in their thousands via both deliberate and accidental ethnic cleansing. For instance, in the Sydney region, within two decades of colonial occupation around 90% of Dharug had been decimated by smallpox, with some historical evidence pointing to the fact that this was done on purpose. In modern-day Australia, Indigenous Australians comprise some 20-25% of the prison population, despite constituting only about 3% of the general population. One could argue therefore that yes, indeed, Indigenous Australians are not living in camps in PNG and NZ, because a vastly disproportionate number are in fact living in detention right here on the mainland.

    All this however is a distraction from my original question, so please answer it: how is Australian academics calling for a boycott of Israeli ones not utterly rank hypocrisy?

  4. Perhaps, Confused, you’ve “never received a satisfactory reply,” because the only reply that would satisfy you would be one that accords with your ideological predilection, which appears to be political Zionist dogma.

    “How is Israel a colonial-settler society?” you ask.

    Did it never occur to you that not all settler-colonial societies are cut from the same cloth? You seem to be suggesting that Israel was somehow the product of the small number of Jews who have always been, largely for religious (not political) reasons, present in Jerusalem, while ignoring the steady waves of non-religious European Zionist settlers allowed into Palestine, against the wishes of its non-Jewish Arab majority, by their British patrons and protectors following an arrangement (known as the Balfour Declaration) reached by Chaim Weizmann’s Zionist Organization and the British government of Lloyd George in 1917.

    And far from the absence of a single ‘Metropole’ or ‘mother country’ fostering the Zionist colonization of Palestine, Israel has benefited from a surfeit of these: Britain and the United States to name but two.

    I’ll leave you with some quotes to ponder that go to the very heart of the Zionist colonial project in Palestine:

    1) “From the moment I entered the [Zionist] Movement, my eyes were directed towards England, because I saw that by reason of the general situation of things, there it was the Archimedean point where the lever could be applied.” (Theodor Herzl, February 1898)

    2) “Maybe England will chance upon an empty piece of land in need of a white population, and perhaps the Jews will happen to be these whites…” (Chaim Weizmann, 1914)

    3) “Zionist colonization… must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population. This colonization can, therefore, continue and develop under the protection of a force independent of the local population – an iron wall which the native population cannot break through. This is, in toto, our policy towards the Arabs. To formulate it any other way would be hypocrisy.” (Vladimir Jabotinsky, 1923)

    “Where is Palestine?” you ask? I will only say that neither Herzl, Weizmann, Jabotinsky, or Ben-Gurion, the founding fathers of Israel today, would ever have asked such a question.

    As for apartheid, all a state needs to do to qualify for the label is enact legislation which distinguishes, in the case of Israel, between Jews and non-Jews, legislation such as Israel’s Law of Return, which allows in Jews from anywhere in the world, but keeps out Palestinian refugees ethnically cleansed in 1948, and a raft of other legislation which effectively denies 93% of Israeli territory to non-Jews, Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel and the 1948 Palestinian refugees, many of whom still hold the title deeds to homes, land and businesses confiscated by Israel following the expulsion of their owners in 1948.

    Finally, your suggestion that Aboriginal incarceration is the equivalent of millions of exiled and stateless Palestinians in refugee camps is a joke. If you were genuinely concerned about Aboriginal incarceration rates, instead of merely trying to score propaganda points, you’d also be concerned at the truly extraordinary levels of incarceration of Indigenous Palestinians since the birth of Israel.

    Your attempt to play off of the plight of Australia’s Indigenous population against the plight of Palestine’s Indigenous population deserves only contempt.

  5. “Your attempt to play off of the plight of Australia’s Indigenous population against the plight of Palestine’s Indigenous population deserves only contempt.”

    Contempt from you perhaps, because you STILL haven’t provided any kind of answer to my pressing question. The fact is, Australian BDS drones have not a leg to stand on while throwing their stones in their very big glass house. Massive and blind hypocrisy: THAT it was deserves only contempt.

    Settler Australia’s horrendous historical and contemporary treatment of its Indigenous inhabitants, the White Australia policy, its present psychological torture of parentless children and pregnant women asylum seekers in malarial concentration camps, its ongoing military engagement with neoliberal misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan (directly responsible, in the case of the former, for literally hundreds of thousands more deaths of ethnic Arabs in the past decade, than the entire 100-year history of the Arab-Israeli conflict): Australia’s human rights record is appalling, so how dare a bunch of its ill-informed academics, who owe their professional existence to its government, presume to lecture Israeli academics on what they should/shouldn’t do with regards to their own? Those with no answer are morally bankrupt and simply cannot be taken seriously.

  6. Confused, you have no “pressing question.” Your only aim here, as with defenders of apartheid Israel everywhere, is to play the game of deflection.

    Unable to engage with what I’ve already said, you have the hide to dredge up such matters as:

    a) a defunct Australian immigration policy – while Israel’s biology-based, apartheid Law of Return, mentioned in my earlier comment, is still current.

    b) Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war – a war conceived by Likud-linked, US neocons, at the very heart of the Bush administration, and led and waged by Israel’s staunchest ally and imperial benefactor.

    Please stop insulting our intelligence.

    How dare you, a supporter of Israeli apartheid and occupation, use Australia’s Indigenous people in a transparent attempt to deflect attention from Israel’s crimes against Palestine’s Indigenous people. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

  7. “Your only aim here, as with defenders of apartheid Israel everywhere, is to play the game of deflection… a supporter of Israeli apartheid and occupation”

    Utterly presumptuous and totally incorrect. Nowhere in the above thread have I indicated my support of Israeli occupation of the West Bank (I’ll leave aside “Apartheid” which is an asinine misnomer). In fact I am staunchly opposed to it: quite apart from the human rights abuses, in realpolitik terms it is utter lunacy. Your facile and erroneous assumptions weaken your argumentative authority considerably.

    What I am also opposed to is the reductive demonisation of an entire professional body of intelligent human beings to a homogenous mass of unthinking automatons blindly supportive of the political status quo, which is exactly what academic BDS does by supporting a blanket ban on engagement with Israeli academics. THAT is insulting.

    In drawing a parallel between the egregious historical and present-day actions of both the Israeli and Australian governments, I wasn’t positing a strict substantive equivalency between the two (an absurd reading); rather I was attempting to demonstrate a fundamental and self-delusory hypocrisy at the heart of the academic boycott, something which, whether through analytical ham-handedness or convenient and wilful denial (I suspect the latter), seems to have been lost on you.

    My challenge remains, and remains unanswered:

    How can Australian academic BDS supporters presume to stand on a moral pedestal, with such obvious feet of clay?

    How can they seriously try to preach what they clearly have not the courage to practice themselves? Hold others to standards to which they themselves do not come close to adhering?

    Why do they insist on comfortably proposing from afar such an oafish and reductive response to such a complex historical and geopolitical territorial conflict?

    Why don’t they engage positively with the myriad Israelis – academic and otherwise – actively working to resolve issues on the ground inside Israel (like, for instance, Dan Avnon)? Israelis who actually have a dog in this fight when they oppose the policies and actions of their rightwing government and/or seek to counteract them? Why instead do they bury their heads in the sand and let the other end do the talking?

    What is it: a deflective psychological defence mechanism? Sheer simple-mindedness and lack of self-awareness? What?

    I’m still waiting for any kind of coherent response to a simple challenge: academic BDS by Australians is unalloyed hypocrisy, the pot calling the kettle black, and is therefore morally and intellectually bankrupt A more humble, positive and productive response to their objections would be to align themselves with their colleagues on the ground in Israel, lend them their support and add their voice from afar. Instead: blanket rejection and blame. Preposterous.

  8. So you’re not a supporter of Israeli apartheid and occupation? You’re in fact “staunchly opposed” to to the occupation of the West Bank?

    And yet, with settlements/colonies popping up all over the West Bank and East Jerusalem under the protection of the world’s fourth most powerful military machine, you’ve denied Israel is a colonial-settler state (“How is Israel a settler-colonial state?”).

    You’ve arrogantly denied the existence of historic Palestine (“Where is this ‘Palestine’ to which you refer?”).

    And you’ve denied even the occupation you claim you “staunchly oppose” (“The UN observer state of Palestine… is wholly under the control of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank… How can ‘apartheid’ exist across the border of two independent nation states?”) So, the West Bank is now an “independent state,” not an occupied territory? My, you really are confused, aren’t you?

    You also deny that Israel is an apartheid state (“How can ‘apartheid’ exist across the border of two independent states?”) And this when we have such manifestations as military law for occupied Palestinians and Israeli civil law for settlers; Jews-only roads for settlers and Palestinian-only checkpoints for occupied Palestinians. But for you, Israeli apartheid, on either side of the Green line, is merely an “asinine misnomer.”

    You complain about “the reductive demonisation of an entire professional body of intelligent human beings to a homogenous mass of unthinking automatons blindly supportive of the status quo.”

    Are you trying to pretend that Israeli universities are mere ivory towers, wholly separate from the operation of Israeli apartheid, occupation and general warmongering? What bubble are you living in?

    Please feel free to tell us about any concrete initiatives by Israeli academics against Israel’s apartheid legislation and practice (or “the status quo” as you so coyly call it).

    Tell us what they, as a “professional body of intelligent human beings,” doing about the Apartheid Wall? Settlements? Home demolitions? Checkpoints? Curfews? Home invasions by the army? Torture?

    Tell us which “professional body of intelligent human beings” has come out for the right of return of Palestinian refugees?

    And how dare you complain of “reductive demonisation” of Israeli academics.

    Just listen to yourself: You’ve called Sydney University “a monument to ethnic cleansing.” You’ve smeared its academic supporters as “BDS drones” and “a bunch of ill-informed academics, who owe their political existence to the government.” You speak of their “utterly rank hypocrisy,” their “feet of clay, ” their “unalloyed hypocrisy.”

    You suggest that they may be exhibiting “a psychological defence mechanism.” Are you sure you’re not projecting?

  9. “you’ve denied Israel is a colonial-settler state”

    Said it before, apparently have to say it again: not a colony, no colonial empire/metropole from which to colonize. Unlike, you know, Australia. Are you serious unable to see the irony in you, a citizen and beneficiary of a settler-colonial state decrying…a “settler colonial state”? Seriously though.

    “You’ve arrogantly denied the existence of historic Palestine”

    Nope, wrong again. I just questioned your definition of modern-day Palestine.

    “So, the West Bank is now an “independent state,” not an occupied territory? My, you really are confused, aren’t you?”

    “Are you trying to pretend that Israeli universities are mere ivory towers, wholly separate from the operation of Israeli apartheid, occupation and general warmongering? What bubble are you living in?”

    Pas du tout. It apparently needs spelling out yet again, so maybe if I paraphrase you it will somehow get into your noggin:

    I am trying to point out that Australian universities are not mere ivory towers, wholly separate from the egregious, pervasive and ongoing human rights abuses of the Australian government both at home and abroad. But you and other BDS supporters insist on living in a bubble of rank hypocrisy, where they feel it’s just fine to condemn academics on the other side of the world for doing the exact same thing they themselves are doing in Australia, instead of admitting protesting is hard when you also have to live and work everyday, and doing productive things like pooling resources and reaching out to sympathisers on the ground etc.

    “Please feel free to tell us about any concrete initiatives by Israeli academics against Israel’s apartheid legislation and practice (or “the status quo” as you so coyly call it).”

    How about I start with my father, a medical research professor, and the five Palestinian post-docs in his Israeli university lab (whose families he often has over to dinner), and his partnership with Al-Quds University on the West Bank? There may be no overarching academic campaign (unlike the raft of civil society campaigns – e.g., but that doesn’t mean there aren’t professional academics dealing with the realities on the ground every day, engaged in a long-term incremental effort towards mutual understanding and harmony (unlike people such as yourself, harrumphing oafishly from afar and achieving nothing). A simple fact apparently too nuanced to be entertained in your facile, Manichean mindset of black and white: you appear to have the mental stamina of a small child or laboratory ape.

    “You suggest that they may be exhibiting “a psychological defence mechanism.” Are you sure you’re not projecting?”

    Sure. Unlike you, I’m not calling for a (counterproductive) ban or boycott of anything or anyone; instead I’m calling for productive and positive collaboration.

    Around and around we go; my question, a simple one, remains unanswered. Whether through cowardice, simple-mindedness or a combination of both, you’ve still failed to address it. Until you can (it seems you can’t), there’s really no point in you engaging in this debate.

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