At the end of October, 40 Nobel Laureates decided to collaborate with an overtly Zionist institution and write a dubious-at-best (Fisking will begin momentarily) public statement, denouncing the academic and cultural portion of the initiatives of the growing world-wide BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. Their claims were not new to us, in the movement, nor did they inspire any serious debate, or new thought. Though the statement in itself merited no intellectual response, the mere stature of its authors elicited a response from PACBI (the Palestinian campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel). That said, in the spirit of the free exchange of ideas (and my obsession with taking talkbacks way too seriously), I’d also like to reply to the [n]obel Laureates.
On Ethics and Axioms
“Always shocked but never surprised” has become a mantra to me in the past couple of years. I’ve grown to understand my reality as a place (or rather a twilight zone) where shocking events often happen and ignorant statements are often made, and all without the blink of an eye. No guilt, no shame. No accountability.
It follows that I wasn’t exactly surprised by the fallacious and irresponsible statement made by the Nobel Laureates. A statement which is unfounded and under-researched and serves to stifle public debate about the Palestinian plight. In the interest of public debate, I’d like to address all their claims, in turn, and only to ad that the word Palestinian does not appear once in their statement, further deepening the thought-apartheid prevalent among academics that in their spare time identify as Zionists. (This is the result of the search for the word Palestinian on the site for “Peace in the Middle East”.)
The laureates stated that they believe that:
…academic and cultural boycotts, divestments and sanctions in the academy are:
- antithetical to principles of academic and scientific freedom,
- antithetical to principles of freedom of expression and inquiry, and
- may well constitute discrimination by virtue of national origin,
First and foremost, it’s important to note that these claims are very generalizing, and at no point in the statement do the laureates make even an attempt to back up or even explain their deduction process. As scientists and scholars, that’s the minimum one may expect- ethical axioms take a long time to get rooted, if they want this to happen, it is my unscholarly view that they should make a more serious effort.
The first point disregards the fact that academic institutions are not separate from the economic realities they exist in. Academia is- as any other institution- unfortunately, powered by money. BDS aims to inform people as to where their money is going. This includes donors and other institutions. I doubt that Eugenics (for example) is highly funded these days, and as far as I know, anybody vouching for it calls this skunk-cabbage by any other name.
The second point, in my opinion, is a non-starter. Non-participation in oppressive systems is fueled by information sharing. Not wanting to point out the obvious, but feeling obliged to do so: The key to any grassroots movement is education on the issues. When the BDS movement asks that academic institutions be boycotted, the only way to achieve participation is explain why.
The two first points also seem to confuse the BDS movement- a grassroots movement- with powerful, dictatorial regimes. The movement, though it has managed to sweep the passions and minds of many, isn’t capable or interested in stifling expression or inquiry. On the contrary; as activists, we invite all to ask questions and participate in debate. In the process you will probably decide, on your own, if BDS is the tactic for you.
The third point is not only laid out inconclusively (“may”), it is also a slanderous charge of a form of racism. I’d like to point out that BDS isn’t directed at individuals as such, as the title of the laureate’s statement suggests without evidence. Undoubtedly, individual academics are tied to their institution by many strings, but I argue that one must take a courageous stand against injustice, especially when it is rampant in the institution they chose to attach themselves to. It is cynical to choose to stay in silence in order to obtain status, but then complain when the people who suffer from your silence are asking that no one grant you the privileges of this status. If an academic should rise up at all, the movement encourages them to rise up in the face of the corruption of an institution which rewards cooperation and development of systems of oppression, and punishes dissidents [1,2,3,4].
Do Your Research
It is with this focus at the wording of the title of the laureate’s statement that I choose to continue addressing this issue. In the following paragraph the laureates make their appeal to other academics to “defeat and denounce” the call for boycott against representatives of the academia “affiliated with Israel.” These are not the guidelines of the Palestinian call, and shouldn’t be represented as such (PACBI):
Since Israeli academic institutions (mostly state controlled) and the vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics have either contributed directly to maintaining, defending or otherwise justifying the above forms of oppression, or have been complicit in them through their silence… We, Palestinian academics and intellectuals, call upon our colleagues in the international community to comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonization and system of apartheid…
One would logically conclude that the call is not a boycott of Israeli academia by simple virtue of being Israeli, but for their collaboration and enablement of occupation. These, by the way, are easily proved [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9]. As the laureates make an appeal, so do we:
Next time you get an invitation from an Israeli academic institution, make background checks and see if the institution isn’t somehow entangled in the occupation and practices of apartheid. You may find that the institution is already being specifically campaigned against for various relevant reasons, in your area. If you have questions, Google your local BDS group or look up basic resources like PACBI and the BNC (the BDS National Committee).
Pride and Prejudice
The remanence of the statement occupies itself with two objectives:
The first is to delegitimize the BDS movement as “incubators for polemics, propaganda, incitement and further misunderstanding and mistrust.” Again, all without one footnote and juxtaposed with the call to “promote and provide opportunities for civil academic discourse where parties can engage in the search for resolution to conflicts and problems.” Though I don’t know what ruler is used to measure “civility”, I suggest that these debates- held by “Scholars for Peace in the Middle East”, who’s professed purpose is to ”to develop effective responses to… manifestations of anti-Semitism in academia, including calls for an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions.”– dig deeper than the theoretical search for “resolution to conflicts and problems”. The words of Edward W. Said, from Representations of the Intellectual come to mind:
Everyone today professes a liberal language of equality and harmony for all. The problem for the intellectual is to bring these notions to bear on actual situations where the gap between the profession of equality and justice, on one hand, and the rather less edifying reality, on the other, is very great.
The second objective and the closing paragraph of the laureate’s statement is one of self gratification that at face value seems not to merit a response. However, as social activists, we’d like to point out the laureates implication that they are the only ones intellectually capable of “doing the often difficult and elusive work to understand complex and seemingly unsolvable phenomena.” It is the practice of tyrants to limit the access to information to the elites. The BDS movement provides an opportunity to take the debate out of the classroom and into the public sphere. Now, all have the resources to confidently take part in the debate which has for far too long been framed by the oppressors of the ivory tower.