Why I oppose an academic boycott of Israel and favor more active engagement

In November 2015 I co-organized a UK-Israeli workshop on quantitative conflict research at the University of Haifa with Dr. Carmela Lutmar. This event generated some media attention, and I would like to briefly clarify why I am opposed to an academic boycott and in favor of more active engagement.

I am opposed in principle to academic boycotts of autonomous universities. Many countries follow policies that I do not agree with, but I do not see why boycotting universities is a sensible response. I share the view of Universities UK that academic boycotts threaten to undermine academic freedom and that all academic institutions must uphold academic freedom and the fundamental right of academics to question national and international policies.[1]

Principled opposition aside, I also think it is clear that Israeli academics hold a wide range of views, and an academic boycott is unlikely to be helpful to promote academic freedom and pluralism.

Proposals for an academic boycott of Israel have surfaced at regular intervals in the UK. Many people left the Association of University Teachers/AUT around the time when I took up my current position at the University of Essex in 2005 to protest against proposals by some members for an academic boycott of Israel. (To my knowledge, the idea of a boycott has never been supported by the leadership of AUT or its successor the University and College Union/UCU.)

However, if people opposed to a boycott leave the Union it would become easier to get such proposals enacted. I thus became interested in how one might make a more positive contribution to foster active cooperation. I have engaged in some efforts to actively cooperate with Israeli academics in grant applications. Many of these were not funded, but I have since 2011 participated in an EU funded COST action “European Network of Conflict Research” with participation from Israeli colleagues since 2011.

The workshop at the University of Haifa came about when a British Charity (the Friends of Israel Academic Study Group)[2] expressed an interest in supporting a collaborative workshop on quantitative conflict research. In the invitations for the workshop we made it clear that this was an academic workshop, without a specific agenda per se, although active collaboration with academics at Israeli institutions is obviously not compatible with the spirit of the boycott proposals.

The workshop itself was very successful and rewarding, and we hope that it can inspire more active collaboration between UK and Israeli academics in quantitative conflict research. Most of the papers were global or comparative and not related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the workshop included a paper on the effects of the Gaza bombing campaign on Palestinian public opinion. It was clear from the discussion that both Israeli and UK academics have a wide range of views, but the participants had an opportunity to discuss and learn about the research and opinions of others.

Some participants expressed a desire to have more academics from the Palestinian territories at the workshop. I personally think that this would have been a good idea, but I also understand that it is often difficult to get academics from the Palestinian authorities to participate in activities at Israeli institutions. Arab Israeli Citizens make up more than 30% of the student body of the University of Haifa, and I met Arab students while in Israel. We hope to be able to involve Palestinian scholars in future activities.

[1] http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/highereducation/Pages/UniversitiesUKstatementregardingacademicboycottsandacademicfreedom.aspx#.VkG8n79q0ag

[2] http://www.foi-asg.org/asg-home.php