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Wednesday 4 October 2023 Dublin: 15°C
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Column I'm supporting a boycott of Israeli academic institutions – here's why
The boycott is aimed at institutions and does not mean Irish academics can’t work with Israeli individuals, writes Harry Browne.

AN INTERNATIONAL CAMPAIGN to denounce not only one of the world’s favourite movie stars, but also one of its niftiest little products? All because the latter is made in a West Bank factory and the former endorsed it? And this campaign actually succeeded in separating her from a middle-of-the-road NGO that she had previously represented?

Honestly, if you had told me about the Scarlett Johansson versus Oxfam versus SodaStream controversy five years ago (hell, two years ago!) I would have thought you were demented. The row and its outcome were an extraordinary index of the growth in consciousness about Israel’s illegal occupation and settlements on Palestinian land, and of an increasingly widespread belief that at least some Israeli companies and institutions should be considered ‘beyond the pale’, even for a vaguely liberal actor and a charity not especially associated with the Middle East.

Although the Scarlett case focused on ‘settlement goods’, it shows the success of the wider campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. That campaign, far from being a creature of western do-gooders, originated nine years ago with a call from a broad coalition of Palestinian civil-society groups. And it has had probably its greatest mainstream success in South Africa, where they know a thing or two about these things.

But what about the free exchange of ideas?

But even people who avoid Israeli avocados may feel uncomfortable about academic and cultural boycotts, of the sort recently endorsed by the 5,000-member American Studies Association in the US. What about dialogue and the free exchange of ideas?

Well, try explaining those concepts to Palestinian artists, students, lecturers and researchers under Israeli occupation.

This week saw the launch of a new group, Academics for Palestine, which has gathered about 140 signatures from people who teach in universities and ITs throughout Ireland, north and south. They have pledged not to participate in research and other projects involving Israeli institutions. Israeli universities and companies actually get more EU research funding than their counterparts in the half the countries of the European Union. And millions of euro of that funding goes to projects involving military and security interests — in some cases with direct Irish involvement.

The boycott is aimed at institutions and does not mean Irish academics can’t work with Israeli individuals.

In fact the famed Israeli historian Ilan Pappé sent a message to the boycott organisers here: “The recent pledge by Irish academics to boycott Israeli academic institutions is yet another landmark in the growing international refusal to allow Israel to continue its oppressive policies against the Palestinians. History would judge each of those who bravely stood alongside the Palestinians in their just struggle for peace and justice as playing a crucial role in ending yet another evil chapter in human history.”

I changed my mind

Still, academic freedom… For years I felt I couldn’t support the boycott, though I did oppose the privileges Israel enjoys in EU research funding. I thought academics and their institutions should be talking to each other, exchanging ideas. Freely, you know?

Then, last year, I visited Gaza. The conditions endured by 1.8 million people there under Israeli siege were sickening to behold, but so was their determination to live normal lives, with higher education an esteemed part of that: I met, for example, Ayah Bashir, a great young scholar determined to become Gaza’s first woman PhD in English. But the things any student or academic should take for granted — the books you need, the capacity to travel to your college — were so rarely available.
And in Gaza I met Miko Peled. Son of a famed Israeli general, he told an audience of Palestinian students that BDS was the only message his society would understand. He firmly and finally convinced me.

I believe in justice

I have to admit it – I have philosemitic tendencies. Growing up as I did in the US, with Rabbi Gottlieb next door, with Jewish girlfriends, with that sweet old couple nearby with the terrifying Nazi-assigned numbers tattooed on their arms, I came to believe, and sneakily still keep somewhere in my consciousness, the idea that as a people Jews have more often than not represented the most genuinely civilised traditions of an otherwise dissolute ‘western civilisation’.

Politically, it should be enough that a representative swathe of the oppressed Palestinian people have asked for BDS – I didn’t wait for white South Africans to tell me it was ok to boycott that apartheid state. But this time, me personally, I must confess that I take my lead from Israelis and other Jewish people (Pappé, Peled, Haim Bresheeth, Hilary and Steven Rose, Judith Butler, Naomi Klein) who insist that militarised Zionism does not represent them, and who have called for an international campaign to rid Israeli society of the shameful injustice of the occupation.

Because that, after all, is the real object of BDS. Not to cut off discussion with Israelis — that would be impossible even if it were desirable, which it is not. The object of BDS is to achieve, by peaceful means, by the small voluntary efforts that are available to ordinary people throughout the world, some too-long-delayed semblance of justice for the Palestinian people.

Harry Browne is a lecturer in journalism in DIT. Twitter @harrybrowne. Contact for more information.

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