What is Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)?
The call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions is a Palestinian civil society-initiated response to Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, its siege of Gaza, its systematic oppression of Palestinian citizens of Israel and violence against civilians in Palestine. Launched in 2005 by an unprecedented coalition of over 170 Palestinian civil society organisations on the model of the successful campaign against South African apartheid, BDS promotes basic equality and human rights, practical peacebuilding and democracy in Israel-Palestine. It categorically rejects all kinds of discrimination, especially anti-Semitism, and aspires to the achievement of basic equality for all people in Israel-Palestine, regardless of race or religion.
What exactly does the academic boycott involve?
The international academic boycott is part of the wider BDS movement. The academic boycott only applies to Israeli institutions, not individual academics, and calls on academics to refuse to participate in or facilitate official, institution-level activities with Israeli universities, such as conferences convened or sponsored by Israeli institutions, and institutional exchange agreements. These and similar arrangements contribute to the legitimisation of Israel in the eyes of the international community by normalizing academic relations with it. The boycott call is predicated on the empirical fact that all official Israeli academic institutions currently actively support Israel’s policies towards Palestine. Australians for BDS has begun to document the large body of evidence showing that Israeli academic institutions deliberately and intensively support the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory through, among other things, a variety of lucrative military research and training efforts. Other areas in which this support is manifested include obstruction of Palestinian access to education and academic freedom; in some cases, the maintenance of premises on stolen Palestinian land; or, simply, the failure to officially condemn Israel’s policies, thereby contributing to their legitimisation. As staff at Australian universities we have a responsibility not to support through our work institutions that either remain silent while the Israeli state destroys the educational infrastructure of Palestine, or are actively complicit with this destruction. If an Israeli university did not support Israel’s current policies towards Palestine in any way, it would not be subject to the boycott.
The academic boycott does not apply to individual Israeli academics or students. As the BDS movement’s international academic boycott guidelines state: “mere affiliation of Israeli scholars to an Israeli academic institution is therefore not grounds for applying the boycott”. BDS is, furthermore, a tactic, not a dogma: the decision to boycott or not to boycott in any particular instance should be the result of an assessment of the ways in which a particular university can be pressured to withdraw its support for or complicity in Israel’s human rights violations and illegality. Finally, BDS is a pluralistic movement and does not mandate any one way of responding to the boycott call.
Shouldn’t we be encouraging dialogue between Israel and Palestine instead?
As Nelson Mandela famously remarked on negotiation with the South African government during, “only free men can negotiate”. Genuine dialogue and negotiation require parity among the participants. Over 160 countries acknowledge the illegality of Israel’s Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank and recognise that these settlements and the widespread abuses of Palestinian human rights are a significant impediment to peace. Parity certainly does not exist between the parties to the negotiations over Palestine. It’s impossible for a hostage to have a genuine dialogue with their kidnapper. Decades of officially sponsored negotiations have only strengthened Israel’s hand. While talks continue, more illegal settlements are built. Only a logic of pressure holds any chance of creating the conditions necessary for a breakthrough. Israel’s marked hostility to the BDS movement as opposed to other forms of Palestine advocacy is evidence of the political traction BDS is gaining.
Why does BDS target Israel specifically?
Unlike many other instances of alleged or proven human rights abuse in the world, Israel’s breaches of international law are massively supported by the US and its allies, including Australia. This imposes an obligation on people in these countries to speak out. Attempts to discredit BDS on the grounds that its supporters show selective concern for Israel/Palestine over other situations of oppression are mistaken both factually and in principle. This criticism is factually mistaken since BDS targets Israel’s crimes against Palestine precisely as flagrant instances of oppression and discrimination, thereby contributing to the broader struggle for a just world. Many BDS supporters, such as the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, are at the forefront of a range of other campaigns for human rights. Members of the NTEU Members for BDS group are also active in the refugee rights movement, antiracism campaigns, the environment movement, the NTEU, and progressive politics more broadly. Such criticism is also wrong in principle: it is no argument against a political position that it concentrates on one particular point within a broader spectrum of issues. Clearly no campaign can simultaneously address every social justice issue the world over. Campaign focuses are chosen as a function of particular political circumstances and with a view to what is achievable.
BDS and academic freedom
Far from infringing academic freedom, BDS promotes it by drawing attention to Israel’s denial of basic academic opportunities to Palestinians. Unfortunately Israeli universities are heavily complicit in the violation of the basic human rights of Palestinians and Israelis, including their academic freedom. Clearly, activities or actions in support of illegal behaviour, oppression, and the denial of basic rights cannot be justified by appeals to “academic freedom”. This applies straightforwardly to Israeli universities’ support for the oppression of Palestinians. In any case, Israeli academics are only affected by BDS if they choose to participate in official institutional activities over and beyond their affiliation with an Israeli university.
BDS and racism
BDS is opposed to all forms of discrimination including racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and sexual discrimination. Targets of BDS are identified as a function of their support for Israel’s human rights violations, not their race or nationality. International companies and organisations that support Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory are a key focus of the BDS campaign. They include Veolia, Adidas, G4S, Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar. Organisations which support BDS regularly work with a range of Jewish and Israeli activists, academics, authors etc.