This forum has been created to enable full discussion of a resolution calling on the MLA to honor the Palestinian civil society call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions until Israel respects its obligations towards the Palestinian people under international law and norms of human rights. The resolution will be debated publicly at the MLA conferences in 2015 and 2016 and is scheduled for a Delegate Assembly vote in 2017. This will enable members to inform themselves on the issues and arguments and to engage in exhaustive deliberation on the issue. We encourage free and open discussion on this forum, though expect that the normal rules of etiquette will be respected by all contributors, despite the controversial nature of the topic.
The discussion in the group is open to all readers, but only logged-in MLA members may contribute. Please see also the discussion taking place in the group Scholarship, Censorship, Exclusion.
[Avatar used by permission of PACBI.org.]
Response to Delegate Assembly Member’s Queries re Academic Boycott of Israel
1–What (if any) are the recommended consequences for scholars who violate the boycott if their institution/organization supports it?
Absolutely none at the institutional level.
As with the policy outlined by the American Studies Association after it passed the resolution, the recommendation is that individual scholars honor the spirit of the boycott. But ultimately it is left up to each member to exercise their conscience to act as they see fit, and no consequences are to be imposed by the MLA.
2–What (if any) are the actual consequences for scholars who have violated the boycott when their institution/organization has supported it? (Have they been fired/denied privileges?)
None at the institutional level. Membership privileges are definitely not dependent on the individual’s behaviour vis-à-vis the boycott.
Both these questions (1 and 2) assume that those institutions that pass a boycott resolution possess the power either to enforce the boycott coercively or to sanction those who infringe them. On the contrary, boycott is a “weapon of the weak” which seeks to employ ethical persuasion to draw people to endorse and honor the call to boycott Israeli academic institutions, rather than to mandate that each individual absolutely follow in lock step, at the individual level, the institution’s commitment to the boycott.
Normalizing collaboration with Israeli institutions is consenting to abetting those institutions’ role in the system of occupation and dispossession. We believe that eventually individual scholars will come to recognize this and act conscientiously. The more publicity is given to the daily injustices committed by Israel against all Palestinians, including serious infringements of human rights and academic freedom, the more individuals, including scholars like ourselves, are obliged to ask if they can conscientiously consent to support such systemic and ongoing oppression. The institutional endorsement of the boycott will empower individuals to honor the boycott, and will also express the association’s commitment to defend its individual members from retaliation suffered as a consequence of doing so.
3–At what level are most of these sanctions being enacted? Most of the opening headers in the PACBI guidelines must be enacted (or refused) by whole universities at the presidential/board level, not at the level of individual scholars.
Sanctions are enacted solely at the level of institutional relationships. The resolution would commit the MLA as an organization to desist from institutional collaborations with Israeli universities or governmental organizations and their representatives (e.g., no research center partnerships, no study abroad programs, no co-sponsorship of conferences, etc.). It would also express the belief that individuals should not engage in institutionally supported collaborations. Nevertheless, as explained above, individuals are entirely free to either follow the actions of the MLA, or not. It is up to the individual; there are no consequences for faculty who individually continue to have relationships with Israeli universities.
4–In that context, what is our responsibility as individual scholars?
For those of us committed to advancing justice for the Palestinians, our responsibility so far as our institutions is concerned is to assist in building the pressure on university presidents, trustees or regents, research centers, and administrations not to commence, extend or continue institutional collaborations with their Israeli counterparts. Such acts can vary in many ways and to many degrees. Depending on local circumstances, this might involve working with campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, joining USACBI or forming a Faculty for Palestine network on campus, inviting Palestinian speakers to campus, teaching the issues in classes, and so forth, all of which help to build public awareness and expand the civil society movement for BDS. This all falls under PACBI’s call: “PACBI urges academics, academic associations/unions, and academic — as well as other — institutions around the world, where possible and as relevant, to boycott and/or work towards the cancellation or annulment of events, activities, agreements, or projects involving Israeli academic institutions or that otherwise promote the normalization of Israel in the global academy, whitewash Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian rights, or violate the BDS guidelines.”
Building from the principle that is at the core of the call for boycott, i.e., working towards severing institutional relations, a number of steps logically follow, all of which are stipulated in PACBI’s guidelines.
- Not to accept funding from Israeli institutions [There is no language for scholars already formally accepting salaries from such institutions, and so there would be no strictures on working with them simply on the basis of their employment.].
PACBI guidelines are very clear here (see below) that an academic working at an Israeli institution is not to be boycotted on account of that affiliation.
- Not to accept formal positions from Israeli institutions or enroll in them in any capacity.
- Not to attend or organize a conference in concert with an Israeli institution.
- Not to attend or organize an international conference held in Israel. [This is distinct. See PACBI #1]
- Recommend that academic honors not be granted to Israeli officials or representatives of Israeli academic institutions.
- Not to review dissertations or submit professional advancement documents to Israeli institutions on behalf of individual Israeli scholars.
- Not to publish papers in journals or book series housed at Israeli institutions, review for such journals.
- Discourage students from participating in Study Abroad programs at Israeli institutions.
Study Abroad Programs to Israel on their face violate campus anti-discrimination codes. According to the US State Department, “U.S. citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin” are likely to receive discriminatory treatment on arrival. Such Programs should be opposed on these grounds, even outside the framework of BDS.
- Not to sponsor or participate in “Normalization Projects… based on the false premise of symmetry/parity between the oppressors and the oppressed.”
Such projects contribute to the masking of current conditions, using the cover of dialogue or negotiation to disguise the actual asymmetry of power between Israelis and Palestinians..
These are guidelines for scholars and academic organizations that endorse the boycott. Individuals who do not endorse the boycott can continue to do their work, though they may increasingly face ethical discomfort in doing so as the extent to which Israeli institutions are complicit in ongoing violations of international law and human rights becomes increasingly apparent.
It is important to recall the core principle of the boycott, which is that we should work in the first place for the ending of institutional collaboration between our institutions and organizations and Israeli academic and governmental institutions. Individual scholars will have differing degrees of personal and professional engagement with Israeli institutions and it may take time and a considerable degree of ethical and political deliberation to decide which steps to take and at what pace. PACBI’s guidelines are explicitly context-sensitive and in fact lean over backwards to protect individual scholars and to recognize the difficulty scholars have in engaging in the practice of boycott. Maintaining a clear focus on the institutional boycott as the core principle is crucial and scholars will suspend their own individual collaborations with Israeli institutions as they are able and willing to do so and within the context of respect not only for academic freedom as a positive right but also for the obligations which, as PACBI’s guidelines point out, the UN definition of academic freedom also entails.
5–What parts of the PACBI guidelines have been phrased specifically to acknowledge that “mere affiliation of Israeli scholars to an Israeli academic institution is…not grounds for applying the boycott” and to protect such scholars? (This would be a useful counterpoint to the PACBI abuses testimony that we heard.)
Israeli scholars in the course of their work as academics are not subject to the boycott simply because they work at an Israeli university. On the contrary, the guidelines explicitly state that “Mere affiliation of Israeli scholars to an Israeli academic institution is … not grounds for applying the boycott.” This is elaborated in the guidelines’ reference to the fact that “An Israeli academic is entitled, as a taxpayer, to receive funding from his/her government or institution in support of academic activities, such as attendance of international conferences and other academic events, so long as this is not conditioned upon serving Israel’s policy interests in any way, such as public acknowledgement of this support by the organizers of the conference or activity/event.” Hence the boycott does not target Israeli or other scholars’ actual academic freedom to travel, research, present at conferences, publish, etc., no matter what their political opinions may be.
6–What are the immediate, concrete, practical implications for the MLA as an organization? If I understand correctly, we would still allow Israeli scholars (thought not official representatives of their institutions operating in that capacity—deans, etc.) to join/retain membership and to participate at the MLA as long as they don’t do so to for the purposes of furthering an anti-Palestinian campaign or in context of a “normalization project.”
The immediate, concrete, practical implication for the MLA as an institution is that it would not engage in collaborations with Israeli state institutions. It would not, for example, co-sponsor an international conference with Israeli institutions. It is correct to say that individual Israeli scholars, so long as they are not acting as formal representatives of Israeli institutions, are of course still welcomed to be members, submit panels, have their work published in MLA venues. This is much like our own situation in the US academy—we are able to sign petitions and add our institutional affiliation, without implying that our views represent those of our institutions.
The strong symbolic message would be that the MLA has, through a deliberate, thoughtful, democratic action, chosen to remove itself from relations with institutions that enable and advance state policies that are in violation of international human rights law, United Nations decrees, and the Geneva Conventions. It would signal that the MLA recognizes, as a scholarly organization, that it does not want in any way to be complicit with a state that denies basic academic freedoms to scholars who should be protected and nurtured. This is a decided act of solidarity with those scholars.
The immediate consequence is that the MLA would state its public support of faculty who endorse the academic boycott and stand behind them when they are attacked for their show of solidarity with Palestinians. Furthermore, the MLA would not directly participate in any collaborative projects with Israeli universities or professional associations or encourage members to do so. Israeli scholars in their capacity as scholars would still be free to join the association, participate in the conference, and publish in the MLA periodicals and book projects.
7–I also think that people would have a much easier time endorsing a policy that would proactively help scholars rather than reactively boycott institutions. (Although both may be necessary, they would each seem to work better in concert.) Would it be possible to draft a resolution (PACBI addendum?) articulating such options? What might proactively be done to help/acknowledge individual Palestinian scholars. (Offer them honorary affiliation?—maybe something equivalent to emeritus status where they can access library e-resources and hold a university address without formal salary or responsibilities?—didn’t we do that for Louisiana scholars in the wake of Katrina?) Should we make a point of publishing their papers? Inviting them to speak? Offering academic honors/accolades? What can be done to help them network with other scholars when they have limited formal resources?
Yes to all of the above. As have many other scholarly associations, the MLA has been proactively inviting Palestinian scholars to attend the conference and give major panel presentations and individual divisions and forums have dedicated panels either to Palestine or to the discussion of issues that include Palestinian perspectives. As scholars, we also can and should encourage our own institutions and departments to invite Palestinian academics to campus, forge relationships with Palestinian universities, offer fellowships, and the like.
That said, Palestinian civil society, including its major professional associations and unions of professors, teachers and students, have all overwhelmingly endorsed BDS as a strategy and called for the institutional academic boycott as a part of that overall strategy. This is what they consider proactive help in their struggle for academic freedoms and overall human rights, rights that we take for granted and jealously guard for ourselves. Given that they have issued this call and asked us to prioritize it, it is not for those working in solidarity to rewrite, revise or otherwise second guess the decisions they have made as to how their struggle should proceed. That opens the slippery and familiar slope whereby the privileged instruct the oppressed on how best to engage in their own struggles. Nothing in the call to boycott precludes any of the additional steps you mention, all of which can often be essential steps in disseminating information about conditions in Palestine, but for anyone in solidarity with Palestinian civil society in its non-violent effort to realize fundamental human rights, the boycott is the principal tactic that we must pursue.
8–What might proactively be done to help protect conscientious Israeli scholars? (If they have no viable alternative to working within the Israeli system, how can they avoid implicitly endorsing the universities’ stance without abandoning their academic careers? If the conscientious senior scholars leave, who will be left to change the system from within?) What kinds of consequences have Israeli scholars faced when they speak out against the academic freedoms violations? Can we ameliorate those in any way?
Israeli scholars who endorse the boycott are suffering and the MLA’s endorsement would be a show of support for them. As already stated, Israeli scholars who work in Israeli universities are not subject to the boycott simply on the basis of their professional affiliation or national identity—they are subject to the boycott only if they put themselves and their work forward as explicitly representing the state of Israel and its interests. However, Israeli scholars who support BDS, as a matter of individual conscience or more formally through the small but growing “Boycott from Within” movement, have been attacked, sanctioned and, in some cases, have felt obliged to leave Israel. More needs to be done to support those Israeli scholars who seek avenues to challenge Israeli policy, and the section of the Resolution that “affirms the right of faculty and students to advocate for this academic boycott, free from retaliation” should very strenuously be extended to them. The stronger the international boycott movement becomes, the greater the likelihood is that they will find more courageous colleagues within Israel to join them, and that the culture of fear both within Israel and the US will be reduced. We see the boycott as reaching out to courageous scholars within Israel who have publicly condemned the policies of its state, as in the instance of Israeli scholars who condemned the Israeli offensive against Gaza in 2014. This is, in fact, much what happened in South Africa in the course of the international divestment movement.
9–I think that everyone participating in this discussion had largely the same goals and similar concerns, and if you could resolve three problems, there would be no major objections to the boycott:
- How do you stop/limit abuses of the boycott? (Has PACBI made an effort to call out those people who go way beyond the bounds, or does the “common sense” clause really allow for any kind of abuse?).
Despite what some opponents of BDS may have said, and in particular despite all the hypothetical cases dreamed up by its opponents, the PACBI guidelines are very explicit both about what boycott entails and about what stands beyond the guidelines. Much has been made of the issue of “common sense” boycott, but it is not very complicated. PACBI does not advocate for the boycott of individual scholars, or any individual on the basis of their nationality, ethnicity, religion, opinions, etc. However, we all recognize that outside the terms of the boycott, individuals may be known to have committed egregious violations of human rights and that to invite them to campus, sponsor them, or promote the public expression of their views might simply be morally repugnant to many. Campuses are the site of such “common sense” boycotts all the time, very often with regard to speakers who have nothing to do with Palestine or Israel. Many opponents of BDS might find themselves engaging in a “common sense” boycott of the Presidents of Iran or Sudan; proponents of BDS might find themselves protesting a visit to campus by an Israeli academic who recommended the threat of raping a “terrorist’s” mother or sister as a deterrent. But these do not fall within the guidelines, which merely recognize that such moments of moral repugnance may (and should) occur.
- How do you protect individual Israeli scholars/students, including international scholars that have an established formal connection to Israeli institutions at this time?
Given that the boycott movement has no coercive power other than moral persuasion, it is not clear how such scholars and students need further protection from the BDS movement or even the MLA: unlike their Palestinian peers to whom the right to travel has often been denied by the Israeli state, they already have every institutional protection and privilege. That said, nothing can or should protect individuals from having to engage in moral deliberation, even of the most uncomfortable kind, about decisions they have made regarding where and how they do their work. It is true that the BDS movement has succeeded in the last few years in denormalizing such relations so that they now must become self-conscious rather than self-evident choices. That, surely, is a good thing if it promotes critical thought and engagement.
- How do you formally distinguish between the individual and the institution? (PACBI has done a lot of this work, but not always clearly.)
The distinction is one that we make every day in the course of our academic lives. We know when we are engaging with our colleague in his/her capacity as Dean or Provost, and when we are engaging with them as, say, a Political Scientist or Physicist. To give one example, an Israeli university provocatively proclaimed that it was sending one of its faculty to attend the ASA 2014 conference as its representative, in the hope that this would cause difficulty for the Association’s commitment to the boycott resolution passed that Spring. No official of the association, acting as such, engaged with this individual in his or her representative capacity, but no official tried to deny him or her entry to the conference or attendance at panels. The distinction was therefore maintained between both the Association and the institution in their representative capacities and individuals acting as scholars. These are really not very difficult distinctions to maintain, and, again, the main thing is to keep focused on the principal objective, which is the severance of institutional ties.