An Irish union’s boycott fallacy

By Raphael Cohen-Almagor, April 19, 2013
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Dr Ilan Saban is a lecturer at the University of Haifa who devotes much of his time defending and promoting the rights of Palestinians. But if he were to post one of his articles on the subject to a journal in Ireland, his envelope might not be opened, simply because it had come from Israel. This is the result of the Teachers Union of Ireland's recent unjust, unfair, and counterproductive decision to boycott all academic collaboration with Israel.

The decision is unjust because any sweeping decision, by its nature, cannot do justice. It is one thing to offer a rationale to boycott a certain institution or individual. It is quite another thing simply to boycott everyone.

It is unfair because it is based on a small, committed and vocal group of members who have made boycotting Israel their mission. They exploit the silence, indifference and inactivity of the majority of TUI members to pass their unjust resolution. And it is counterproductive because it weakens the peace camp in Israel and strengthens the right-wing position that prefers land over peace and promoting human rights. It hardens the hardliners.

Israeli academia tends to be liberal. Many academics are human-rights activists. Many oppose the settlements. Many are for a two-state solution, the splitting of Jerusalem, a return to 1967 borders, and wish to see a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

It weakens the peace camp and hardens hardliners

I have intimate knowledge of Israeli academia, having served as a professor at two Israeli universities and established the Centre for Democratic Studies at the University of Haifa. Since 1985, I have been promoting human rights in Israel and for the Palestinians inside and outside of Israel. I received the support of academics in all Israeli institutions.

We have been trying to influence government decisions for years, with some success, notably between 1990 and 1993, when Israeli academics, including myself, pushed for negotiations with the PLO. Boycotting academia will work against the peaceful, constructive and liberal elements in Israeli society and play into the current government's hands.

Those who wish to boycott Israel say that Israeli academia is sponsored by the government. This is true. Thus, they deduce, academics are implicit collaborators of discriminatory policies. This claim is as true as the claim that British academics are implicit collaborators in British governments' decisions to wage war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

Those who boycott Israel blame academics for not being able to influence government decisions for the better. Yes, Israeli academics do not have the power they would like. But the TUI decision will render them weaker. Israeli academics tend to be involved in peace-seeking politics more than academics are in Britain, Canada and the US, but the Israeli government pays attention to its academics to a similar degree that the British government does.

The boycotters undercut academic freedom and betray values we all hold dear: freedom of expression, tolerance, equality and justice. Personally, I object to this decision. But if the TUI insists on boycotting countries, I fail to understand why it singles out Israel. Unfortunately, we live in a world where there is no shortage of injustices and severe human-rights violations. How is it that, of all countries, it is only Israel that preoccupies the minds of these vocal teachers?

The Economist Intelligence Unit's Index of Democracy ranks Israel 37th out of 167 countries. The index takes into account civil liberties, among other things. Granted, Israel has room for improvement, but 130 countries are ranked below it. Why does not the TUI focus its attention on any of these for a change?

Raphael Cohen-Almagor is director of the Middle East Study Group

Last updated: 9:45am, April 19 2013