Countless words have been written in the past week about British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s decision to cancel his participation in the upcoming Israeli Presidential Conference on the biggest issues facing humanity. While many have asked whether an academic boycott of Israel can achieve similar results to the one of apartheid South Africa or questioned the wisdom of Hawking’s decision, little attention has been paid to some of the people on the receiving end of the boycott: Israeli academics.
Left-wing Israeli academics have in the past few years faced a great challenge. Threatened with censorship, prosecution and ostracism in their home universities, they have been subtly forced to hold their tongues when it comes to publicly expressing their political opinions. In 2009, Neve Gordon nearly lost his job as a politics professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev after writing an op-ed arguing that Israel has become an apartheid state that can only be saved by an international boycott. One year later, in 2010, world-renowned art theorist Ariella Azoulay was denied tenure by Bar-Ilan University apparently due to her pro-Palestinian political views. These incidents send Israeli academics a clear message: tolerance of critical opinions is running out.
It is for exactly this reason that many Israelis pursue academic careers abroad. But in the international academic community, they often find that no matter how far left or pro-peace they are, their “Israeliness” remains an obstacle. Universities and scholars that explicitly support boycotting Israeli academic institutions are still relatively rare, but it seems that to avoid undesirable political rows, many universities choose not to collaborate with their Israeli counterparts or offer scholarships to Israeli students. In many cases, Israelis looking to participate in student-exchange programs or pay for postgraduate studies in Europe, and especially the United Kingdom, are unable to find any opportunities. When it comes to funding, they tend to discover Israel is neither part of the Middle East nor of Europe. Israelis are usually not entitled to apply for the scholarships available to other foreign students.
While their Palestinian fellows enjoy the political and financial support of active pro-Palestinian university societies and generous scholarships designed specifically for them, the implicit message to Israelis is often: It doesn’t really matter what you say or think, because we simply don’t want to hear from you.” For example, British Member of Parliament George Galloway walked out a debate at Oxford University three months ago simply because he learned that his student opponent was an Israeli citizen. The fact that the student was about to explain the necessity of an agreement recognizing both Israel and a Palestinian state did not matter.
Many Israeli left wingers who hope to find outside Israel the support they lack at home are greatly disappointed. Here in London, I have had several unpleasant encounters with people, including academics, who were unwilling to talk to me simply because I am Israeli.
The dual rejection by the academic communities inside and outside Israel can be extremely frustrating, especially for those of us who see our academic work as part of a profound educational obligation and the academic environment as an opportunity for dialogue and exchange.
Israeli academia is known for its left-wing and pro-peace views. Considering their role in shaping critical political discourse in Israel and abroad, pro-Palestinian activists might be expected to see us as potential allies rather than as members of a sector that needs to be punished for the policy of our homeland – a policy we often protest ourselves.
More and more people in the U.K. seem to support the academic boycott of Israel as a means of obligating the state to change its policy toward the Palestinians. In a survey conducted by The Guardian, for instance, 62 percent of respondents said Hawking’s decision was justified.
But the change an academic boycott of Israel is likely to promote is not necessarily the one its supporters hope for. Even if a boycott pressures Israel to change its policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians, it will only increase antagonistic feelings among Israelis and destroy one of the few remaining channels for dialogue and exchange between the two nations. Then, even if Israel’s official policy were to change, it might be too late to change the hearts of the Israeli people and lay the foundation for mutual understanding with the Palestinians.
It is at times like this, when every conceivable scenario seems hopeless, that academics are most needed. Those of us who are committed to a bottom-up peace process must rise up and say: Stop, you are shooting the wrong targets! If we are silent, we will contribute to changing the political map of the Middle East but not in the way supporters of a boycott imagine.
The writer is an Israeli postgraduate student in the department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths University of London. Her research deals with different aspects of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.