The academic boycott debate – The ‘Israeli exception’

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The appalling skirmish that dragged on for almost two months this past summer between Israel and the Hamas terrorist organisation in control of Gaza – whatever else it did or didn’t accomplish, besides fraying everyone’s nerves – has predictably precipitated some perverse symptoms in global civil society.

These effects are most visible outside Israel, in the United States and Europe, where the ’new anti-semitism’ is on the rise. But they also have odd corollaries at home in the Jewish state, as with certain individuals in the Israeli diaspora who choose to live abroad for ostensibly political reasons.

In a statement of the kind that is certain to be picked up on by Israel’s detractors in the West – as surely as it echoes their own preconceived notions back at them – Amir Hetsroni, a professor at Ariel University in the West Bank-Samaria, implausibly accuses Israeli academic institutions of complicity with political repression linked to the recent fighting and ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

Because of this, he says he now, as of late August, has doubts about his former opposition to boycotts of Israeli educational institutions.

However, Hetsroni’s concerns for academic freedom in Israel are as overwrought, unrealistic and misplaced as his ‘examples’ of supposed censorship are exaggerated nonsense – nothing but overhyped distortions of some minor incidents on Israeli campuses.

In fact, these were no different – in spirit, quality or kind – than similar controversies that took place elsewhere in the world this summer under the pressure of similar disagreements about one and the same upsetting conflict.

Indeed, it is normal and a healthy sign that, in a free society, tensions arise at such times over the balance between freedom of speech and other exigencies.

So that’s what happened in both Israel and, for example, the US this summer – although nothing much came of any of it in Israel.

This is not surprising. For as a matter of plain common sense,familiar to everyone who knows the placeexcept, for whatever reason, HetsroniIsraeli academic institutions are in fact the very epicenter of criticisms of Israel.

By contrast, it was in the United States – a place where freedom of speech is famously enshrined in one of that country’s founding documents, the Bill of Rights, and academic freedom is unquestioned as a value – that things got ugly.

In a place where artists deface religious symbols with the help of taxpayer dollars and ‘tenured radicals’ are notoriously at liberty to question anything and everything with the protection of lifetime job security – subjecting the flag, your favourite sports team’s racist logo and everyone’s grandma to the monotonous, ceaseless inquisition that is pervasive, institutionalised ‘political correctness’ – there it was, in that bastion of moral authority on matters of civil discourse, that consequences were felt this summer with regards to the line between free speech and hate speech.

It was in the US that the right to political dissent and the need to maintain academic credibility came into conflict, in a celebrated case called ‘The Salaita Affair’, which focused on questions of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in academia.

The Salaita affair

In the present context, let’s simply take note first of all that it was not in Israel that Professor Steven Salaita was rejected for academic employment. Rather Salaita, author of a crude pseudo-intellectual rant titled, charmingly, “Israel’s Dead Soul“, was ultimately denied a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, in part because of some intemperate tweeting that got him into trouble with his prospective employer over the summer, as he awaited confirmation of an autumn appointment.

Outrageously, the job candidate’s juvenile posts celebrated kidnapping, declared anyone who supports Israel to be “an awful human being”, and caricatured Israel’s prime minister as a baby-killer who delights in collecting body-parts for souvenirs – displayed as jewellery.

In contrast to this harsh punishment, meted out to an American professor who chose to incautiously engage with his inner demons by indulging an unwholesome appetite for unusually rancid imagery on Twitter – so far as I know, no academic in a comparable situation at an Israeli university lost his job during the same period.

Indeed, any minor pushback from the university administration which there may have been in response to some inadvisable social media activity by a few students on a couple of Israeli campuses – the basis of Hetsroni’s plaint – was trivial by comparison to the drama that unfolded in the US.

Maybe, therefore, Hetstroni and those of his ilk should start by first discussing boycotts of American academic institutions instead of Israeli ones?

Yet it is interesting to note – and very telling – that not even those who have indeed pledged to boycott University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne go so far as to propose a blanket blackballingof all American academic institutions.

Why then should anybody even wish to consider so maligning all Israeli colleges and universities?

The general rule in effect appears to be to call for boycotts of a given, specified institution that one disagrees with, for particular reasons concerning specific offences – unless the institution in question happens to be Israeli.

In which case, the ‘Israeli Exception’ kicks in – and it is somehow thought appropriate to consider boycotts of all the institutions of an entire country because of national affiliation.

Moreover, as the Hebrew University’s Professor Elhanan Yakira has demonstrated, in his important book-length study of the phenomenon of Israeli academics who denounce Israel, Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust: Three essays on denial, forgetting, and the delegitimation of Israel, criticisms of Israel and Zionism are every bit as alive and well on Israeli college campuses as are criticisms of ‘capitalism’, ‘patriarchy’ and ‘US hegemony’ at the University of California, Berkeley.

There is simply no shortage of criticism of Israel in Israel, least of all on its campuses – where many like Hetsroni make their living – or in its newspapers, like Ha’aretz, where Hetsroni and others publish their views all the time.

The proposition that ‘because of Gaza’ there is something about Israel to boycott in terms of free speech and-or academic freedom is absurd – as these ready-to-hand examples suggest. Against all odds, Israeli democracy remains incredibly vibrant.


Outside Israel, rhetoric from academics upset with the Jewish state is at times even harsher and more hysterical the further such criticism gets from the daily reality that everyone knows about in Israel today.

In University World News recently, for example, Professor Haim Bresheeth of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies – a self-described ‘anti-Zionist’ and proud ex-Israeli who says he absconded in disgust after serving in the Israeli Defense Force during the 1960s – calls on decent people everywhere to ‘Stand up and be counted!’ among those who condemn Israel.

Committed anti-Zionists around the world can join him and signify their own moral virtuousness too, he says, by supporting the BDS movement for ‘Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions’, which Bresheeth thinks should be levelled at Israel’s undemocratic ‘apartheid’ regime.

Never mind that he thus unselfconsciously invokes a notoriouslydiscredited smear. The defunct clichés keep coming from him. Moreover, don’t worry that such lurid, patently inaccurate comparisons are obscene, or that it is possibly even just a little bit racist to single out the sole Jewish state among the family of nations – in a world of ‘Christian Democracies’ surrounded by ‘Arab Republics’ as well as certain ‘Islamic Republics’ that obviously have far worse human rights records.

For the participation of “Jews such as myself” in anti-Israel activity, Bresheeth signals from London, serves to “dispel all false accusations of anti-Semitism” (my emphasis).

Here the professor’s reasoning – ironically enough, in a performative contradiction of that very thing he wishes to assert and wants readers to believe – plainly participates in the classically anti-Semitic propaganda that claims, if ‘Jews say it about themselves’, then it must be true. It is a line that the Nazis also liked to use.


In sum, among the least attractive characteristics of the uglier reactions to last summer’s conflict between Israel and Hamas is the shameful tendency to want to support the perceived ‘underdog’ at all costs by blaming the victim of countless terror attacks – prosecuted by means of cascading rockets launched indiscriminately at civilians, diabolical networks of subterranean passageways leading to villages, and the simply criminal kidnapping-murder of schoolchildren – for what needed to be done in order to dampen an otherwise chronic assault against its civilian population.

As an example of this pathology, in the wake of the Israeli military’s careful suppression of immediate threats to Israel’s security coming from Gaza – thanks to the success of Operation Protective Edge – renewed calls for boycotts against the Jewish state have lately been bruited.

These cries are perverse and unjust enough in general – unwarranted by the facts in the case of the worst reported, ‘most important story on Earth’ and morally illegitimate in terms of both means and ends.

But the problem of means and ends is especially germane when calls for boycotts involve academic institutions in any way. Universities should, by their nature, be dedicated to theuninhibited exchange of ideas.

No matter who says otherwise – be it an Israeli academic or a “former Israeli” dining out on his status as a Jewish critic of the Jewish state – the charges are scurrilous and abut anti-semitism.

* Gabriel Noah Brahm teaches English at Northern Michigan University, USA, and will be visiting faculty this year in the School of Philosophy and Religions at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is a research fellow in Israel studies at Brandeis University, USA, and a ‘Scholars for Peace in the Middle East’ fellow. He is co-editor (with Cary Nelson) of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, scheduled for distribution by Wayne State University Press in October. His email address is

The academic boycott debate – The ‘Israeli exception’

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Gabriel Noah Brahm

Gabriel Noah Brahm is Senior Research Fellow at University of Haifa’s Herzl Institute for the Study of Zionism. In 2016 he founded Michigan’s Center for Academic and Intellectual Freedom (named an "Oasis of Excellence" by ACTA), at Northern Michigan University, where he also teaches English and world literature. His forthcoming book is Israel in Theory: The Jewish State and the Cultural Left. Follow him on Twitter @Brahmski.

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