⛓️ Academic freedom and the anti-Israeli BDS movement

Raphael Cohen-Almagor looks at the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign to boycott Israeli academics and ban Israel tout court. He argues that there is no justification for any academic organisation to do this. Any such decision would be unjust, unfair, and counterproductive

The BDS movement

BDS is a Palestinian-led movement of unions, academic associations and churches across the world. Its aim is to end international support for 'Israel's oppression of Palestinians' and to pressure Israel to comply with international law. The model it follows is the battle against apartheid in South Africa. The BDS holds:

Israel is occupying and colonising Palestinian land, discriminating against Palestinian citizens of Israel and denying Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes

bds website

However, the comparisons between Israel and South Africa are misleading, and conflate the situation in the West Bank with that in Israel as a whole. Boycotting Israeli academics would not solve the refugee problem, as the BDS claims. It would not help Palestinian refugees to claim their 1948 homes in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Haifa, Lod, Ramla and other cities.

The issue here is a more fundamental one. It is the way in which such a general boycott suppresses academic freedom, and under what conditions such suppression can be justified – not just in Israel, but anywhere.

Academic freedom

Those who wish to boycott Israel undercut academic freedom. They betray values we all hold dear: freedom of expression, tolerance, equality, justice and peace. A boycott of Israeli academics and institutions, therefore, is contrary to the core principles of academic freedom. It is antithetical to free exchange of ideas.

Academic freedom is the freedom to pursue knowledge wherever it may lead, without undue or unreasonable interference. It means the freedom to engage in the production and dissemination of knowledge and information. This includes choosing research topics; determining what to teach in the classroom; convening conferences and workshops; presenting research to colleagues, students and the wider public; publishing research findings; applying for grants; and helping individuals, governments, businesses and NGOs with knowledge and expertise.

A boycott of Israeli academics and institutions is contrary to the core principles of academic freedom. It is antithetical to free exchange of ideas

As teachers and researchers, we need academic freedom to fulfil the aims of the academy. Academic freedom allows us to conduct research that broadens and deepens knowledge of the world in all its facets. It helps us teach and train the next generation of researchers and professionals.

Unjust, unfair, and counterproductive

The BDS is unjust, because any sweeping decision, by its very nature, cannot do justice. It is one thing to offer a rationale to boycott a certain institution or individual for good reasons. It is quite another simply to boycott everyone. General boycotts in principle must be opposed.

Boycotting Israeli academics would be unfair because the boycott is likely to be led by a relatively small, committed and vocal group of people in any given organisation or association. Such people tend to make the boycotting of Israel their life’s mission. They exploit the silence, indifference and inactivity of the majority of association members to pass unjust resolutions which do not represent the views of many, possibly most, members.

And such a decision would also be counterproductive because it undermines the objectives that the committed group of members wishes to reach. Boycotting Israeli academics weakens the peace camp in Israel. It strengthens the right-wing position that prefers land over peace and human rights, and hardens the hard-liners.

Israeli academia

Israeli academia tends to be liberal. Banning it entails banning individual scholars like you and me who are passionate about teaching and research and who wish to better their society, and the world at large. Many Israeli academics are human rights activists. Many oppose the illegal settlements and the occupation of the West Bank. What's more, many support a two-state solution, a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the splitting of Jerusalem, return to the 1967 Green Line, and finding a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

Recently, all presidents and rectors of Israeli universities published a statement opposing the government’s attempts to undermine democracy by legislation that would undermine the judicial system and the Supreme Court. Signatories included Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Technion, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Bar Ilan, Weizmann, Ben Gurion, and Ariel.

Boycotting academia works against the peaceful, constructive and liberal elements in Israeli society. It plays into the hands of politicians who are trying to downplay the importance of Israeli academia.

The limits of the academy

Those who wish to boycott Israel claim that Israeli academia is sponsored by the government. Moreover, they deduce academics are implicit collaborators of discriminatory policies against Palestinians. Yet this claim is as true as the claim that American academics are implicit collaborators in American government decisions to wage war in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other parts of the world. It's as true as the claim that British academics are implicit collaborators in their government's foreign affairs decisions including, for instance, the Iraq War.

Those who wish to boycott Israel blame academics for not being able to influence governmental decisions. Yet Israeli academics do not have the power they might wish to have.

Those who wish to boycott Israel blame academics for not being able to influence governmental decisions for the better. They ought to know Israeli academics do not have the power they might wish to have. But boycotting decisions against Israel will make them even more powerless. Israeli academics tend to be involved in leftist, peace-seeking politics more than academics in countries I know and have worked in, including Britain, Canada, the USA and India. Israeli politicians, especially those in government, pay as much attention to the country's academics as the French government, or any other democratic government, pays attention to its own academics.

Academic culture

The BDS movement corrodes the academy and its treasured ideals of free speech, civility, respectful discourse, and open research. It is time the larger academic community prevailed over those who ride the BDS bandwagon. Upholding their boycott would produce an academic culture devoid of freedom of rational and constructive thinking. Let’s all pursue the free exchange of ideas. Let us create bridges instead of creating yet more obstacles to peace.

Banning ideas and people only increases rifts and hostility. The way forward is to engage and converse. We should fight those who wish to dictate the agenda by bans, exclusion and animosity.

⛓️ Fourth in a new Loop series examining constraints on academic freedom in a variety of global contexts

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Raphael Cohen-Almagor
Raphael Cohen-Almagor
Professor of Politics, Founding Director of the Middle East Study Centre, University of Hull

Raphael is also Olof Palme Visiting Professor, Lund University, and Global Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC.

He holds a DPhil from St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford.

Raphael has taught, inter alia, at Oxford (UK), Jerusalem, Haifa (Israel), UCLA, Johns Hopkins (USA) and Nirma University (India).

He was also Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (twice), and Distinguished Visiting Professor, Faculty of Laws, University College London.

Raphael has published 19 books and more than 300 articles in the fields of politics, philosophy, education, law, sociology, history, media ethics, medical ethics, business ethics, and poetry.

He tweets @almagor35

The Republic, Secularism and Security: France versus the Burqa and the Niqab by Raphael Cohen-Almagor

The Republic, Secularism and Security
Springer, 2022

Just, Reasonable Multiculturalism: Liberalism, Culture and Coercion by Raphael Cohen-Almagor

Just, Reasonable Multiculturalism
Cambridge University Press, 2021

Confronting the Internet's Dark Side: Moral and Social Responsibilty on the Free Highway by Raphael Cohen-Almagor

Confronting the Internet's Dark Side
Cambridge University Press, 2015

Raphael is now writing Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Critical Study of Peace Mediation, Facilitation and Negotiations between Israel and the PLO and another book on euthanasia in Belgium.

He was a co-founder of Israel’s 'Second Generation to the Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance' Organisation, the founding Director of The University of Haifa Center for Democratic Studies and the founding Director of The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute think-tank on medical ethics.

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3 comments on “⛓️ Academic freedom and the anti-Israeli BDS movement”

  1. The BDS movement has worked itself into most social Justice issues. BDS isn’t just against Israelis any more…It is against any pro-Zionist professor no matter where they live or work. It is antithetical to academic freedom and is a poison to academia, in general.

  2. Cohen-Almagor does an effective job of laying out key issues in this contentious debate in an admirably clear and concise way.

  3. Entangling the Israeli academy and the Israeli academics as a whole in BDS sanctions is unjust and counterproductive. Prof Cohen Almagor lays out important , concise, compelling, and critical insights on this crucial subject.

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