Boycott Hewlett Packard, Not Israeli Academia

Supporters of Palestinian rights are boycotting targets associated with Israel. Many see all such boycotts as justified. Many supporters of Israel maintain instead that no such boycott can be justified. And many academics argue that academic boycotts, in particular, can never be justified.

With all due respect, I disagree with everyone. I argue here that some boycotts aimed at Israel are justifiable, potentially including some academic boycotts, but a general boycott of all Israeli colleges and universities is not.

Let me start with a recent case at Syracuse University that raised the question of boycotting an individual because he is Israeli, though it appears now that no one at Syracuse thinks this can be justified. Here is the convoluted tale of a boycott that was not really a boycott but rather a disinvitation that was blamed on a boycott and then followed by denials, apologies, and a re-invitation.

Meet Shimon Dotan, an award-winning Israeli filmmaker who has taught at universities in Israel, Canada, and the United States. Dotan was invited to present his new film The Settlers at a spring 2017 conference on "The Place of Religion in Film" at Syracuse University. But then he was disinvited by the conference organizer, who wrote that her colleagues "have warned me that the BDS faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant for you and for me if you come."

BDS is a nonviolent movement for Palestinian human rights that relies on boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. Responding to negative publicity about the disinvitation, Syracuse faculty affiliated with BDS denied that they had played any role. On the contrary, they noted, BDS boycotts institutions, not individuals. Boycotting an individual because he or she is Israeli and/or Jewish would be inconsistent with BDS policy.

Also responding to the negative publicity, Syracuse University observed that a boycott of Israelis would violate its policy of nondiscrimination on the basis of citizenship or national origin. As the 2016-17 academic year began it announced that it would invite Professor Dotan after all, but apparently not for the spring 2017 conference.

Meanwhile, the conference organizer issued a statement apologizing for the disinvitation. She had "overstate[d] concerns expressed by some of my colleagues," she wrote, and "allowed my own fear of controversy to rule over good judgment and good teaching." It remains unclear just what happened here, but I'm content with the apparent consensus that individuals must not be boycotted on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, religion, or other such characteristics.

Consider, by contrast, the boycotts of Hewlett Packard, Caterpillar, SodaStream, Ahava, G4S, and other corporations complicit in Israeli violations of international human rights law. The purpose of these boycotts is to pressure companies not to participate in violating Palestinian rights and thus force Israel to comply with international law regarding refugees, settlements, home demolitions, freedom of movement, ethnic discrimination, imprisonment, and torture.

These boycotts target specific companies that are directly complicit in specific human rights violations. Each company is free at any time to end the boycott by changing its behavior. One can argue about the usefulness of any particular boycott but boycotts of this sort are often justifiable and even morally admirable.

And academic boycotts? The American Association of University Professors opposes academic boycotts but maintains a list of censured institutions that anyone is free to boycott. But to get onto the AAUP list an institution must seriously violate basic academic standards, as when the University of Illinois rescinded its job offer to Professor Steven Salaita because of objections to his anti-Zionist tweets. And colleges can get off the list by changing their policies and practices.

An academic boycott of all colleges and universities in an entire country, in contrast, removes its targets from the international academic community for reasons beyond their control. Such boycotts threaten the important ideal of academia as an autonomous international community that transcends national divisions.

People have a right to boycott institutions even when their boycott is deemed unwise or unjustifiable. But in boycotting for human rights we should think hard about what we are trying to accomplish and how best to achieve those ends. Our choice of targets and tactics must be consistent with our commitment to human rights and academic freedom.