Boycott Affects Israeli Academics on a Personal Level

HAIFA (AP) -
Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management, Technion, Haifa. (Wikipedia)
Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management, Technion, Haifa. (Wikipedia)

Although the global boycott movement against Israeli universities ostensibly targets universities, not individuals, Israeli academics say they are often shunned at the personal level. They experience snubs at academic conferences, struggle to get recommendations and can experience difficulty publishing their work in professional journals.

“This is highly personal and personalized,” said Israeli anthropologist Dan Rabinowitz, a leader in his field, heading a prestigious school of environmental studies at Tel Aviv University.

The BDS website says “the vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics have either contributed directly to the Israeli occupation and apartheid or at the very least have been complicit through their silence.”

Ironically, Israeli universities are regarded as liberal bastions, and their professors are some of the most vocal government critics.

Peretz Lavie, president of the Technion, Israel’s premier science and technology university, said the effect of the boycott has so far been minimal.

Lavie, who chairs the Association of University Heads in Israel, said relations between Israeli and American universities remain strong at the institutional and leadership levels, and praised this month’s decision by the Association of American Universities reaffirming its opposition to the boycott. The group, which represents 62 leading U.S. universities, said the boycott “violates academic freedom.”

Nonetheless, Lavie said the boycott movement has become a top concern for Israeli university leaders, particularly as it has gained support at the “ground level” from U.S. student unions and academic associations.

“There may be a domino effect,” he said. “If we do not deal with it, it will be a major problem.”

Lavie is now leading a battle against the boycott. While acknowledging that Israeli government policies are open to criticism, he said that holding universities responsible for them is unfair and asked why countries with abysmal human rights records, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, have been spared.

Rabinowitz counts the November vote favoring the boycott by the American Association of Anthropologists as one of the most painful chapters of his career. He said he personally tried to alter the boycott resolution twice — only to be rejected with little or no debate. He said the rejection by his colleagues was a “defining moment” for him. In a statement, the association confirmed Rabinowitz’s account, noting that the meeting was “highly charged.”

Ed Liebow, the association’s executive director, said the organization felt “a strong commitment” to take some sort of action. “The one thing we can’t do is nothing,” he said. The measure goes to the association’s more than 10,000 members for a vote this spring.

Rachelle Alterman, a professor emeritus of urban planning at the Technion, said she still has strong working relationships with colleagues around the world, but the pro-boycott camp is a “rising minority” in academia. She said it is less of an issue in the hard sciences like medicine and physics, and much more palpable in more subjective social sciences. Younger academics trying to establish a reputation are especially vulnerable.

Alterman said she has begun to feel a “coldness” from some colleagues at conferences that was not there in the past. She said some colleagues refuse to attend conferences in Israel, and editors at professional journals tell her it is difficult to find people willing to review papers by Israeli academics.

“I call it the dark matter. It’s there all the time, but elusive, hard to spot,” she said.

In one recent case, a British colleague coolly rejected a request to assist one of her graduate students.

“I am afraid that as part of the institutional boycott being observed by some academics in relation to Israeli organizations I am unable to help with your request,” the British professor wrote in an email.