BDS and the Inversion of Victimhood

Submitted by faculty members in MLA-related fields at Israeli universities

The following statement is presented anonymously by Israeli academics who support the boycott of Israeli universities.  The faculty are forced to si

Israeli left wing activists hold signs as they demonstrate against the suggested boycott law, in front of the Justice ministry in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 10, 2011. The Israeli parliament is bracing for a fiery debate over a bill that allow damage suits against Israelis who call for boycotting West Bank settlements. The signs read in Hebrew: " Peace Now", " Fighting the Government of Darkness", The Right Silent Me" . (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Israeli left wing activists hold signs as they demonstrate against the suggested boycott law, in front of the Justice ministry in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 10, 2011. The Israeli parliament is bracing for a fiery debate over a bill that allow damage suits against Israelis who call for boycotting West Bank settlements. The signs read in Hebrew: ” Peace Now”, ” Fighting the Government of Darkness”, The Right Silent Me” . (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

gn anonymously because of a 2011 law passed by the Israeli parliament that prohibits support for BDS among Israeli citizens.  According to the New York Times, the law “effectively bans any public call for a boycott — economic, cultural or academic — against Israel or its West Bank settlements, making such action a punishable offense. It would enable Israeli citizens to bring civil suits against people and organizations instigating such boycotts, and subject violators to monetary penalties. Companies and organizations supporting a boycott could be barred from bidding on government contracts. Nonprofit groups could lose tax benefits.”  (NYT July 18, 2011)

As the MLA prepares to vote on a boycott resolution, many Israeli scholars have been recruited to speak out against it (and their discomfort may be understood). By contrast, the handful of Israeli scholars who support the Palestinian call for academic boycott are restricted by the Israeli boycott law which renders support of BDS illegal. Thus, practically all Israeli interventions in the boycott debate parrot state-sanctioned speech. The following brief statement attempts to disrupt this monopolization, albeit anonymously (because of these legal restrictions).

The Israel-led campaign against the boycott of Israeli academic institutions rallies around the claim that if adapted it will hurt progressive Israeli scholars. Campaigners use this tactic to divert attention from the plight of the entire Palestinian population living under Israel’s elaborate system of colonial repression and injustice to a manufactured victimization of Israeli academics. This is a manipulative inversion of victimhood.

Palestinian academics have been working and living under harsh conditions for decades. Israel has systematically isolated and stifled the Palestinian academe by preventing academics from accessing their campuses, traveling to conferences, and welcoming international guests at their home institutions; by persecuting individual scholars; and by shutting down, attacking, and invading campuses. For Palestinians these have been daily realities that directly limit their ability to engage in academic activities.

By contrast, under the emergent boycott, Israeli academics have faced neither the kind nor the degree of unfreedom that Palestinians have been experiencing, nor will BDS ever subject us to anything remotely similar. Nonetheless, most Israelis are concerned with academic isolation only in relation to their own imagined (present and future) difficulties under the threat of boycott.

The victimhood strategy is an effective tool in Israel’s anti-BDS campaign particularly when it emanates from self-proclaimed progressives within Israeli academy. It promotes the claim that the academic boycott will alienate precisely those progressive Israeli forces who should be supported so they could influence Israeli society from within. But time and again—in the face of systematic violations of Palestinian rights within the academy and beyond it—most progressive academics here have chosen to protect their own institutions and campaign against BDS rather than use their privileged positions to reform these institutions.

It is important to note that Israeli universities have long served the military occupation, and are thus complicit in violations of Palestinian human rights. They have done so through research initiatives that provide crucial scientific, conceptual, ideological, and legal infrastructure for the occupation’s arsenal and policies.

Professor Isaac Ben-Israel—a Major General (reserve) and former Member of the Knesset, who headed the Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure in the Israel Ministry of Defense, and who chairs Tel Aviv University’s Workshop for Science, Technology and Security—explained that Israeli universities collaborate more systematically with the security forces than their US counterparts because Israel has no national research labs. Therefore, “Military R&D in Israel would not exist without the universities. They carry out all the basic scientific investigation, which is then developed either by defense industries or the army.”

In addition the universities support the military, and thus the oppression of Palestinians, by running on-campus flagship training programs that prepare the next generations of elite officers, thus providing leadership infrastructure for the security forces.

At the same time, Israeli academic institutions have been glaringly indifferent to military assaults on Palestinian academic institutions and their communities. While they complain that the boycott would frustrate their efforts to cooperate with Palestinian scholars, such cooperation is meaningless as long as Palestinian universities are stifled by colonial subjugation.

Under these conditions, as far as Palestinian rights are concerned, Israeli progressivism functions as a badge of honor that replaces commitment to an action-oriented political stance. So far, many progressives have paid lip service objections to the occupation, but have failed to act. Continued external pressure can encourage them to take substantial actions for human rights. In fact, it seems that such incipient process has begun—as a result of BDS rather than in spite of it. We believe that a substantial change in Israeli academe can have real impact on the advancement of Palestinian human rights.

The anti-BDS defense of progressive Israelis, much like the charge of antisemitism that often accompanies it, is disingenuous. Its purpose is to frustrate efforts to advance Palestinian human rights, and it should be recognized as such. We invite academics committed to human rights to employ their broader critical and ethical approaches regarding academy-government relations and the public role of intellectuals to seriously consider the MLA boycott resolution.