Boycotting Israel: What Is To Be Done

Electronic Intifada has run an excellent article outlining the historical background of the divestment and boycott campaign against Israel. When the regime of the NP in South Africa implemented the ‘apartheid’ policy of racial segregation, total disenfranchisement of non-whites and open and concealed warfare against left wing forces, the head of the African National Congress openly called for a campaign to boycott South Africa. This campaign was extraordinarily succesful on the part of the common people as well as intellectuals in Europe and America, despite ongoing support for the reactionary dictatorship in South Africa by the US government and some right-wing European parties. From the early 1960s on, the boycott first and foremost took the form of a campaign to ‘divest’ from South Africa, that is to say to withdraw any capitalist investment in that country on the part of pension funds, city boards, and individual corporations in order to economically undermine the basis of the South African regime. The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in 1961 to the effect of calling for economic sanctions against South Africa for the apartheid crime, but predictably, rather than taking economic action against a ‘friendly country’, the Western countries decided to boycott the GA meeting instead. Because of the persistent refusal to implement divestment or sanctions on the part of Western governments, whether of the right or ‘left’ (such as Harold Wilson), it took until the early 1980s for the international campaign for boycotting South Africa to reach the necessary critical mass. Eventually the strength of the anti-apartheid movement was so great that a Republican US Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986, overriding their own President Reagan’s veto.

How much effect this campaign had on the eventual decision by F.W. De Klerck to abandon the apartheid policy is difficult to say. It is almost certain that especially the decisions by major bodies such as state legislatures, prominent universities and US Congress itself to divest from South Africa put significant economic pressure on the De Klerck government to change its policies. Although it is easy to fall into the trap of post hoc ergo propter hoc, it seems telling that all the decades that institutions such as Harvard University claimed to better oppose apartheid by using their shareholder vote within South Africa, not a single move against apartheid was made by the white settler minority, but when the divestment campaign became serious, apartheid collapsed. The South African regime was forced, interestingly enough against the neoclassical standard economic protocol, to implement capital controls to prevent the increasing capital flight from South Africa in the mid-1980s as a result of the divestment campaign. According to the website of Michigan State University, an early leader of the academic divestment campaign, both Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela as major leaders of the ANC credited the divestment campaign with being a major aid to ending white minority rule in South Africa.(1)

A different issue is the movement for academic and cultural boycott of South Africa, which ran parallel to the economic divestment one. South African sports were boycotted, as were South African writers, academics, and so forth; the famous Dutch writer W.F. Hermans was banned from speaking in public-owned buildings in Amsterdam by the city council after having done a lecture tour of South Africa in the mid-1980s (were he showed himself mildly critical of the system). The boycott campaign was not just one-way; as the Electronic Intifada article points out, Trinity College Dublin’s academics for example also passed a motion pledging none of them would accept academic posts in South Africa either. A similar motion had been passed by a great number of British academics in response to the repression of South African academics Jack Simons and Eddie Roux by the NP regime.(2) The efficacy of this type of boycott, together with the cultural and sporting boycotts against South Africa, has been more generally debated. Again, Tutu came out in favor, but within the anti-apartheid movement there was much criticism and a general feeling that cutting off all intellectual and cultural links between South Africa and the outside world was likely to isolate the country and thereby isolate it from outside criticism as well, enhancing the position of the apartheid regime. Solomon Benatar at the University of Cape Town suggested instead a selective apartheid boycott, whereby only those cultural and intellectual institutions which supported or took part in apartheid would be boycotted. A critical study on the subject based on surveys of South African academics in 1995 by Lancaster & Haricombe for the journal Perspectives on the Professions reported the following conclusions:

The academic boycott was more of an irritation than a true obstacle to scholarly progress.

In most cases, scholars and libraries were able to circumvent the boycott one way or another – for example, by using “third parties” in less antagonistic countries although with delays and at greater expense.

The academic boycott actually had some effects that could be considered beneficial. Lacking convenient access to foreign textbooks, some faculty members wrote their own, more appropriate to the South African situation; some departments moved from the study of Dutch literature to the study of the domestic literature.

The boycott had intangible, psychological effects that are difficult to assess. Many scholars felt left out, isolated, unjustly discriminated against. Suspicions were created-for example, that a submission was really rejected for political reasons, not the reasons claimed, or that the high incidence of inactive research materials, such as biological agents and antibodies, received by South African institutions was not a mere coincidence. Barriers to the free exchange of information with foreign scholars seem not to have improved collaboration at the local level. Indeed, scholars frequently felt that the isolation brought more local acrimony than local harmony.


With this in mind, it it useful to look at the case of divestment and boycott as it applies to the main case of apartheid-type government in the world today, the repressive and discriminatory regime of the state of Israel. The parallels in terms of Israeli policy towards Palestinians (as well as Arab Israelis with citizenship) and the South African white minority government are very clear, and have been documented thoroughly many times, including by former US President Jimmy Carter. The United Nations special rapporteur John Dugard, himself a South African, explicitly compared Israeli policy to apartheid in his report of 2007.(4) Furthermore, prominent anti-apartheid activists such as the aforementioned Tutu have compared Israeli policy to South African policy in this regard; not just recently, but even during the reign of the NP in South Africa itself. As defined by the United Nations in 1973 and again in the Rome Statute of 2002, apartheid constitutes a crime against the people it is aimed against. This being accepted, the question becomes whether an analogous policy of divestment and boycott is the right approach against Israeli policy as well.

It seems it is difficult to refute the case for divestment from Israel in the economic sense only, and economic boycott against Israeli products exported abroad. South Africa under apartheid was supremely vulnerable to large-scale divestment precisely because of the weakness of its internal capital, making it almost entirely dependent on foreign direct investment from Western countries. This circumstance was strengthened further by its geographical position and the hostility of all other African nations towards South Africa because of apartheid and South Africa’s support for right wing insurgencies in the continent. Israel is a very similar position, and this is no coincidence: at the roots of the racist and oppressive policies of segregation and minority rule in both countries are their status as settler states in hitherto foreign lands, and settlerism always has a specific dynamic of its own that makes it particularly likely to create such policies to protect the settlers in their isolated, militarized situation. (To see that this is true, one need but look at the White Australia policy, the history of the United States, and so forth; also, the strong degree of mutual support between apartheid South Africa and apartheid Israel, with the latter even helping the former develop nuclear weapons.) Israel’s capitalist class is likely somewhat stronger than the South African one was, and further strengthened by the greater extent of foreign capital coming in from tourism and from Israel’s connections with the United States, which are vastly better than South Africa’s ever were. Nonetheless, a vast number of Palestinian organisations have called for an economic boycott and divestment campaign against Israel, apparently believing from their close vantage point that such a campaign would be effective.(5) At the same time, the fact that the United States has felt compelled to prohibit exporting companies from giving information on whether or not they comply with a boycott of Israel to certain Arab states indicates a certain nervousness about the possible effectiveness of such a boycott.(6)

That said, there are some counter-arguments to be made. Forcing municipalities, pension funds and the like to divest from Israeli holdings is likely to have some effect, but only a minor one; all the more since usually such divestments take the form of selling stocks, which are then likely to be bought at reduced price by someone or some institution with less moral scruples about the matter. Israel has also attempted to avoid boycotts by labelling goods made in its illegal settlements in the West Bank as having been made in ‘official’ Israel itself, or even in different countries altogether (such as Cyprus, the main throughfare port). It is clear to all involved that a capitalist-settlerist system cannot be defeated merely by divestment, as capital itself is strongly amoral in its tendency and therefore any attempt at depriving Israel of economic means in this manner will come up to a hard limit where less scrupulous investors will simply ignore the matter. More effective therefore would be a legal approach, which enshrines a boycott policy into law and thereby changes it into sanctions: this way, the laws of competition cannot force companies from such countries to invest anyway in order to defeat the competitors, and it would also hit Israel in those areas where it is most vulnerable, namely its dependency on exporting agricultural produce (mainly fruit) and high-tech electronics. Those are difficult to boycott individually, in the former case because the labelling is often poor and in the latter case because consumers are not usually aware of the goods or where they are applied. Therefore, although the argument for economic boycott is strong against an export-dependent state like Israel, it must always also be a campaign for legal sanctions internationally, rather than limiting it to the weak weapons of boycott and divestment only.

The academic boycott campaign of Israel has garnered much more controversy, as seen in the case of the British National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education. This teachers’ union voted to sever academic links with Israel, but its boycott expired when it merged with a different teachers’ union and these institutions are so slow and encumbered that any organized boycott on their part is not likely to amount to much. There is however, contrary to the claims of some left-wingers opposed to an academic boycott, every reason to believe that a thorough boycott of this kind would be felt strongly in Israel itself. As a Guardian article pointed out:

This matters more to Israel than you might imagine. Academic activity, and particularly science, are areas in which the country excels. “In physiology and neuroscience, physics and computer science, the Israelis certainly punch above their weight,” says Blakemore. Schuldenfrei calls Israel “a very important player in the academic marketplace”. For a small nation without abundant natural resources, this has had obvious benefits. From agriculture to arms manufacturing, Israel has become more technology-driven and successful than comparable nations.

At the same time, though, the nature of Israel’s academic pre-eminence makes it vulnerable to a boycott. “We are top of the world league with Switzerland and, I think, Sweden for the proportion of research projects that are international collaborations,” says Zinger. “Close to 40% of papers published in Israel involve cooperation abroad.” For complicated and expensive scientific research, there is often no alternative; yet for the weightiest historical and political reasons, campus links between Israel and its Arab neighbours have always been limited. Instead, Israel has developed academic connections with the west, and Europe in particular – which has its own equally weighty historical reasons, notably the holocaust, to treat it generously. Israel receives subsidies from EU funds for scientific research, the only non-member state to do so. “In the most recent four-year framework programme, we paid in €150m,” says Zinger, “and we got research grants of €165m.”

Given the fact Israel relies so much on its high-tech exports as well as the applications of its sophisticated high tech industry for its military, and the fact its research receives grants and support from within the European Union, there is every reason to believe a serious academic boycott would have the required effect. Whether this applies also within the humanities and social sciences can be much more doubted; for example it is not clear what the Palestinian cause would gain by an academic not attending a conference of the European Network for the Study of Ancient Greek History in Tel Aviv. But one could argue that there is a duty not to attend in any case, simply in order to make a broad boycott movement more effective – something along the lines of not crossing a union picket line. As Steven Rose pointed out:

There are signs that the turbulent experiences of some of the boycott signatories have made them more, not less militant. At the Physiological Society, Colin Blakemore has set up a study group to examine when conventions about academic freedom should give way to boycotts. Its conclusions, he hints, are not likely to be favourable to Israel. More broadly, he has come to question whether academia should be insulated from politics at all: “Is it really true that scientific research is such a special activity that it should be last on the list when it comes to boycotts?” Steven Rose goes further: “Academic freedom I find a completely spurious argument in a world in which science is so bound up with military and corporate funding.”


That being said, in this case there are also solid arguments against it. The first is the argument also applied in the South African case: namely, that the boycott is likely to hurt those most who are in fact the least collaborative, such as Israeli academics with international connections. Such people are beyond doubt much more likely to politically oppose Israel’s policies than the average Israeli. This argument can be countered in turn by pointing to the degree to which Israeli universities, such as the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, collaborate with the Israeli regime in the military front and the persistent discrimination and exclusion of Palestinians from Israeli universities. Plus, an avowed anti-apartheid Israeli scholar like Ilan Pappé has himself said he supports a general boycott of Israeli academic institutions and figures in a debate on the subject with Baruch Kimmerling.(9) On the other hand, the same arguments apply as in the case of South Africa. A boycott increases Israeli universities’ dependency on government funding, and reduces their independence; given a large amount of important research done to expose the criminal nature of the state of Israel since 1948 is done within its borders, this could do damage to the anti-Israel movement. This is all the more so since Israel’s intellectuals are often the only real opposition voice within the country. One could argue that their own position will have to be sacrificed for the benefit of excluding Israel internationally, but it is not immediately obvious (unlike in the case of economic sanctions) that the cost-benefit ratio would work out this way. A second point is that Israeli academics appear to be more critical of Israel than American academics are of their own murderous settler state and its endless wars, or even than British academics have been in the case of Northern Ireland, as pointed out by Kimmerling in the debate. Nobody is boycotting them – in which case the academic boycott against Israel only takes form because Israel as a smaller and less significant country is simply easier to exclude, which seems an argument on bad ground. Faced with this, Pappé’s argument that the ‘civil society’ has to implement a boycott simply because the governments of our nations refuse to do so is hardly very convincing – all the more since the ‘civil society’ is the absolute domain of the bourgeoisie of our nations and so about the least reliable partner one could think of in the long run.

With regard to the academic boycott, therefore, Kimmerling is probably right to suggest as an alternative that the connections with Palestine and the Palestinian universities be strengthened instead. While all foreign funding for Israeli academia should cease as long as it is complicit in Israel’s discrimination and militarism, there is little point in punishing individual academics for it if they want to speak abroad or submit papers. Palestine, which has a very high commitment to education and a relatively well-educated population in any case, deserves a more direct support, which would harm Israel’s interests more and confront settlerism more directly than the highly indirect and circuitous manner of an academic or cultural boycott. At the same time, an economic boycott and policy of sanctions against Israel should be supported across the board. This will aim to destroy the economic basis for Israel’s settlerism, namely its exports to Europe and the US, and in so doing also support the Palestinian unions and workers’ organisations, which are under constant repression from Israeli fascism and Palestinian capitalist corruption both.

3) Lancaster & Haricombe, “The Academic Boycott of South Africa: Symbolic Gesture or Effective Agent of Change?”, in: Perspectives on the Professions 15:1 (Fall 1995).
4) Alan Johnston, “UN envoy hits Israel ‘apartheid'”. BBC News (23 Feb., 2007).
5) See
6) Export Administration Act 1979 (P.L. 96-72).
7), 8) Andy Beckett, “‘It’s water on stone – in the end the stone wears out'”. The Guardian (12 Dec., 2002).
9) Samer Elatrash, “Boycott Israel?” ZCommunications (Apr. 26, 2005).

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