Will Upgrading West Bank College Boost Boycott Movement?

Analysis

Boycott Boost? Israel’s government was hoping to toss a bone to the right wing by upgrading a college in the West Bank settlement of Ariel to university status. It could just end up helping the movement to boycott Israel.
nathan Jeffay
Boycott Boost? Israel’s government was hoping to toss a bone to the right wing by upgrading a college in the West Bank settlement of Ariel to university status. It could just end up helping the movement to boycott Israel.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published October 27, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
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Reut is one of the leading institutions formulating responses to what it terms efforts to “delegitimize” Israel. It has advocated highlighting the distance between hard-line boycott leaders and people who object to specific Israeli policies, and trying to convince the latter group that it can still feel affinity with Israel despite policy concerns.

In Shayshon’s opinion, the Ariel decision could push these two groups closer, adding “another layer of challenge” to their efforts to “drive a wedge” between them.

This assessment raises a certain irony, as the government’s keenness to upgrade Ariel is in part a reaction to the boycott movement. A senior figure in the Jewish community in Britain, where the boycott movement is strongest, recalled attending meetings where Israeli government members had said the upgrade was “seen as sticking two fingers up at the boycotters.” (Raising two fingers in the United Kingdom is equivalent to giving the finger in the United States.) The British Jewish official asked not to be named because of the sensitive nature of the subject.

Academic boycotters, who have been relatively quiet for the past 18 months, are claiming that they are already seeing an increase in interest as a result of Netanyahu’s decision, though their claims cannot be independently verified. It has “added fuel to the… fire of BDS against Israel in the academic and cultural sphere,” Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, the umbrella group for proponents of academic boycotts, told the Forward. He said that his group is “seeing more interest in and support for their institutional boycott campaigns.”

Tel Aviv University philosophy lecturer Anat Matar, who controversially supports a boycott against Israeli universities, believes that Israeli academia could have limited the fall-out of the Ariel upgrade if it had shunned Ariel earlier. “I think [the boycott] strengthened because you can see that Israeli universities, though they have appealed to the high court to stop this, maintain connections with Ariel,” she said.

Rynhold thinks that the Ariel decision has decreased the power of some of his favorite arguments against the boycott, such as the absence of a government agenda for academia, and the suggestion that academia is a liberalizing force in society. He sees the most effective line of argument being that all boycotts against genuine academics — including, in his view, scholars in reactionary regimes like Iran — are unhelpful.

Shayshon believes that the best approach is for Israel advocates to speak openly of their concerns about Israeli policy. In the case of Ariel, this means that when fighting any possible boycott efforts critics of the Ariel decision should mention it, demonstrating that one can object to the decision without becoming disillusioned with Israel. In this way, he hopes, Israel advocates can continue to “drive a wedge” between hard-liners and people with policy objections to Israel.

Some key figures in the fight against the academic boycott think that fears the Ariel decision will invigorate the campaign are overblown. David Hirsh, founder of the U.K.-based anti-boycott movement Engage and lecturer in sociology at the college Goldsmiths, University of London, said that it is “politically impossible” for the boycott movement to take advantage of the opportunity. The movement objects to Israeli institutions in general, and predicted that it will avoid focusing on Ariel, out of fear that “doing so implies that Tel Aviv University is legitimate.”

Michael Dickson, director of the Israeli branch of the American group StandWithUs, argued that the Ariel upgrade could actually be good public relations news for Israel. He said that his group will use the focus on Ariel to highlight the fact that there are Arab students as well as Jews there, and to argue that this shows the openness of Israeli academia. StandWithUs will also argue that Ariel is already a permanent reality that would be part of Israel under any future peace deal. “We are working every day to take complex issues and have them boiled down,” he said. “The boycotters use broad strokes and hope that mud sticks, but [countering them] is not beyond our reach.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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