In the last ten days we’ve seen a chilling escalation of the murderous apartheid violence Israel inflicts on Palestinians. In the West Bank, Palestinians already live under Israel’s illegal military occupation. Those in Gaza are subject to a vicious blockade. Now, Zionist settlers, with the backing of the Israeli state, have been home-invading Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem in order to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from the city. In Israel, extremist mobs are lynching Palestinians and firebombing their property. Palestinians have been attacked and tear-gassed while praying at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque. Israeli bombs are flattening Gaza into rubble, forcing 10000 people out of their homes. Amidst this horror, people of good conscience in universities, whether students or staff, are likely to be wondering if there’s anything effective they can do.
An answer isn’t hard to find. In 2005, 173 organisations from the breadth of Palestinian society appealed to the world to support BDS – the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign – and boycott the forces that continue to rob Palestinians of their land and freedom. There are many ways to implement the boycott. For consumers, boycotting Israel means refusing to buy goods from Israeli and other companies, like HP and Puma, that support Israeli crimes. For students, it means not participating in university exchange programs with Israel, like the ones Sydney University has with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. For academics, boycotting means rejecting collaboration with the official activities of Israeli academia.
Israeli universities deserve to be boycotted because they play a central role in the maintenance, planning and justification of Israel’s permanent anti-Palestinianism. Israeli academia is joined at the hip to the country’s military – which, on Saturday, had already killed more than 130 Gazans and maimed and wounded almost 1000 others. Through their collaboration with the Israeli Defence Force and weapons manufacturers, and their political support for Zionism, Israeli universities are responsible for the destruction of Palestinian lives. They should be made accountable, yet most Israeli academics are silent. This silence is especially serious given that Israel is crippling Palestinian universities in Gaza and the West Bank. Yet, a few years ago, the Israeli academic Chen Misgav wrote that ‘it seems oppression and the egregious violation of the freedom of Palestinian academics produce mainly yawns’ from his colleagues.
When Palestinians ask academics and students to boycott Israel, they’re not asking us to do anything unusual. Political boycotts are a regular feature of university life, like the popular boycott of panels and conferences which underrepresent women. There are many other examples. Following Trump’s election in 2016, thousands of academics called for a boycott of international conferences held in the US. In 2018, UCLA declared a travel boycott for its employees on the state of Oklahoma after it passed anti-LGBTQ adoption laws. In 2021, the World Health Organisation refused to fund research at the University of Melbourne – in other words, boycotted UoM – because of Melbourne’s collaboration with the weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin. If these are reasons to boycott, then Israeli universities should be boycotted too.
Palestinian society is among the most strangulated and oppressed on the planet. When an oppressed political community asks for solidarity and tells its supporters what it wants them to do, there’s every reason to do exactly as it asks. That’s especially true if, as is the case with the boycott, there’s no alternative strategy remotely on the horizon that’s as effective. Boycotting is strategically effective because it pressures Israel and Zionists, and directly undermines institutions – Israeli universities – which facilitate crimes against Palestinians. The fact Israel spends millions of dollars annually countering boycott efforts is an indication of the power BDS has. People who reject it are turning their backs on the unison request of Palestinian civil society.
At the University of Sydney, more than seventy staff members have signed a pledge to uphold the academic boycott until justice for Palestinians is restored. Many more need to join us.
Nick Riemer is a senior lecturer in the English and Linguistics Departments at the University of Sydney.