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A Counterproductive Call to Boycott Israel's Universities

Israeli universities have links to their military. So do most research universities with the military establishments of their respective countries. To single out Israeliuniversities for opprobrium for such links is to say, in effect, that the Israeli military as such has no reason for being—a discriminatory absurdity.

Boycotts and divestment campaigns have their uses, and not only because they express moral passion. Properly focused, they channel passion at specific targets and toward specific results. In this spirit, the two of us have thrown ourselves into such campaigns. One, Calderon, is presently involved in the Israeli boycott of cultural performances in the Ariel settlement on the occupied West Bank. The other, Gitlin, worked against American economic relations with the apartheid regime of South Africa, from 1965 (a sit-in at the Chase Manhattan Bank protesting their loans) through 1985-87 (as cofounder of divestment campaigns at Berkeley and Harvard).

Such efforts go after illegitimate targets—apartheid in the first instance, the West Bank occupation in the second. They send clear signals about indefensible institutions and policies. The apartheid regime excluded all but designated "whites" from citizen rights—therefore it had no right to exist, period. The West Bank occupation is likewise immoral and illegal, and therefore has no right to exist, second period. The boycott and divestment campaigns aimed, and aim, to deprive them of legitimacy—and rightly so. It was surely an unambiguous victory for human rights when the apartheid regime—from its political system down to its passbooks, its flag and its anthem—were definitively junked.

But the recent call for a University of Johannesburg boycott of Ben-Gurion University (BGU) is reckless. It fires a cultural scattergun and blurs necessary distinctions. Thus we take issue with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an authentic hero of the anti-apartheid struggle against apartheid, who joined in a sweeping call to cut off ties with all Israeli universities, maintaining that they "are an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice. … Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation. BGU is no exception. By maintaining links to both the Israeli defence forces and the arms industry, BGU structurally supports and facilitates the Israeli occupation."

The idea of a BGU boycott is in other ways misdirected. It should go without saying that Israeli academics are far more likely to support a just two-state solution than other Israelis. A boycott directed against their academic freedoms antagonizes precisely the Israeli political force that most opposes the occupation.

Moreover, in yet another way, the BGU boycott proposal is not only naïve but counterproductive, for it implicitly erases the Green Line and undercuts the Ariel boycott. In effect, it presumes that the Green Line has no particular meaning. Its implicit demand is: Israel, out of everywhere. In effect, it maintains—contrary to the United Nations partition decision of 1947, and the recognition of Israel by most nations—that the Israeli state has no right to exist.

By the same logic, those in Europe and elsewhere who support boycotts of Israeli products, artists, or universities, mirror the arguments of the West Bank settlers who insist that Ariel and Beer-Sheva belong to the same nation-state. Here again, a precise demand is of the essence. Israelis must be convinced that they should relinquish the West Bank. In other words, they need to be assured that pulling out of Ariel does not mean pulling out of Beer-Sheva.

Accordingly, it was good news that, on September 29, the faculty of the University of Johannesburg rejected the proposal to cut ties with BGU. Surely BGU-Johannesburg cooperation on biotechnology and water purification projects is worthy and should not be held hostage. But at the same time, the Johannesburg professors asked BGU "to work with Palestinian universities on research projects, and to start the collaborations within six months if it wants to maintain ties with the University of Johannesburg." Again, the principle of such cooperation is sound. But such endeavors should be decided upon by academics themselves, not imposed from the outside. Ultimatums do not generate intellectual cooperation or found the moral life we all devoutly desire.

Nissim Calderon is a professor of Hebrew literature at an Israeli university. Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, and the co-author of  The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election, just published in the United States by Simon & Schuster.

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