Jerusalem — A decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “strengthen higher education in the State of Israel,” as he put it, may hand the international academic boycott lobby a gift on a silver platter, Israeli analysts say.
In September, Israel’s Cabinet approved a controversial plan that will give the West Bank’s Jewish settlements their first university. To the dismay of more than 1,000 academics who have signed a petition against the move, it will transform Ariel University Center, a college, into a fully credentialed university. Unless the high court accepts objections to the upgrade filed by all except one of Israel’s universities, Ariel is expected to have university status by next September.
When Netanyahu announced the approval, he cast it as a decision of political as well as educational importance. “Ariel is an inseparable part of the State of Israel, and it will remain an inseparable part of the State of Israel in any future agreement, just like the other settlement blocs,” he said.
The upgrade, along with Netanyahu’s statenent, has dismayed some veteran activists against the academic boycott campaign, such as Bar-Ilan University political scientist Jonathan Rynhold. He told the Forward that he considers the
decision an “own goal” for Israel that “makes it seem like Israeli academia is politicized, which it isn’t.
“You’ve basically given a victory to those who present Israel as an outcast society where the government is running academia.”
The reaction of one of the key groups supporting the boycott seems to back this notion. Jewish Voices for Peace, a Jewish organization based in the United States and actively promoting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, said it would stand behind any Israeli-based drive to boycott Ariel. In the past, the group has supported artists who refused to perform in Ariel’s cultural center. “For us it is not so much a matter of whether it is a cultural or academic boycott, but of whether the effort targets the Occupied Territories specifically,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, JVP’s executive director. “If it does, then it is something that we could support, as in this case.” She added that Ariel University is “quite literally profiting from being a settlement enterprise.”
The main concern of Israel advocates is that the Ariel upgrade will allow the boycott movement to recruit beyond its traditional pool of staunchly anti-Israel academics to include those who take issue with only the occupation. “It makes life for the BDS movement easier, and the reason is that it enables them to garner the support of those who are critical of Israeli policy,” said Eran Shayshon, senior analyst at the Reut Institute, a think tank based in Tel Aviv.