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Boycotting Israeli Universities

By Matthew Kalman
Abu Dis, West Bank

Most Palestinians Applaud Academic-Boycott Decision, but Some Are Skeptical Palestinian Scholars Generally Approve Academic Boycott of Israel Students at Al-Quds U., whose president, Sari Nusseibeh, has opposed boycotting Israeli universities.

The recent decision by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli universities hassharply divided American higher education. For Palestinian academics, however, the move was widely welcomed, bringing some a long-overdue sign of support from their peers overseas.

But opinions here are not unanimous. Views differ on what practical effect the boycott might have on Israel, and a handful of scholars say they oppose any cutting of academic ties, though few say so publicly.

Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, said decisions like the one the American Studies Association made in December were “a key part” of a wider BDS movement, which calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.

The academic boycott “applies morally consistent pressure on Israeli academic institutions to end their deep complicity in planning, implementing, justifying, and whitewashing Israel’s regime of occupation, settler colonialism, and apartheid against the Palestinian people,” Mr. Barghouti told The Chronicle. “The boycott is intended to continue until these institutions recognize Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law and end all forms of complicity in Israel’s violation of these rights.”

He said the resolution passed by the association and a similar one by the Association for Asian American Studies “are warmly appreciated by Palestinian academics and their s.”

Most Palestinian academic institutions suspended joint projects with Israeli universities after the outbreak of the second intifada, in late 2000, and Israel’s subsequent military clampdown across most of the West Bank, which was accompanied by the closure of campuses and the arrest of many students and lecturers. It became impossible for all but a few Palestinians to travel inside Israel.

Pro-boycott scholars in the United States have described travel restrictions for Palestinian scholars and students, as well as for foreign ones, as threats to academic freedom and one reason they want to put pressure on Israel.

Despite the challenges, a few Palestinian institutions and scholars maintain ties with their Israeli counterparts. Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi, director of American studies at Al-Quds University, in East Jerusalem, whose president, Sari Nusseibeh, has opposed boycotting Israeli universities, said he continues to work with Israeli colleagues and encourages his students to do the same.

“I’m against the boycott in general,” Mr. Dajani said. “We need more dialogue with the other. That’s why I believe that you should not have a general boycott against Israel, or a boycott against Israeli universities. If you want to boycott anyone, target those universities that are calling for occupation or are supporting the continuation of the occupation,” Mr. Dajani added. “But don’t target those Israelis and those universities and those institutions which actually are your partner.”
He said dialogue should be encouraged, even between enemies.
“Why is this occupation persisting? Because of all this mistrust. It’s so important to overcome these challenges and build trust between the two people. How can we build trust with boycotts?” Mr. Dajani asked.

Joint Research Projects
A professor in the College of Pharmacy at Al-Quds, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue, said more than 50 Palestinian professors were currently engaged in joint research projects with Israeli universities, funded by international agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development. He said that, without those grants, Palestinian academic research would collapse because there was “not a single dollar” available from other sources. He rejected the call for a boycott as being of no practical value.

But a majority of Palestinian academics agree with Nabil M. Alawi, an associate professor of American literature at An-Najah National University, in Nablus.

“We wholeheartedly support it,” said Mr. Alawi. “We blamed the academics who in the past they were very much silent. Now they are doing something that we wished for a long time. There is a lot of injustice being committed against the Palestinian people. The people here in Palestine have a lot of academic problems. You do not have freedom of movement to go outside Palestine. Students cannot go freely to their universities.”

Farid Abu Dhair, who teaches journalism at An-Najah, has been banned by Israel from traveling abroad for the past seven years, denying him the opportunity to attend conferences. The Israeli authorities accuse him of links with foreign groups that threaten Israel’s security—a charge he vehemently denies.

“I told them that if it is true, they should send me to prison. I am ready to sign an obligation that I don’t have any political connections with any organization,” said Mr. Abu Dhair.

More broadly, he said, “the impact of the Israeli occupation on our universities and teaching system is devastating.” But while he supports the boycott, he is unsure of its effect.

“This is a positive step in the right direction, but in my opinion it will not affect the Israeli political position,” he said. “It’s important because it will have an impact on public opinion in the West, and maybe in the long term it will affect the U.S. policy in the Middle East.”

Israeli-government officials reject the accusation that they are interfering in Palestinians’ academic freedom, saying that Israel has provided much support for Palestinian universities over the decades.

“There is no interference in the conduct of academic activity,” said Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “The Palestinians can teach anything, conduct research, use whatever textbooks they like.”

As for travel restrictions on foreign academics seeking to enter the Palestinian territories, which include the West Bank and Gaza, Mr. Palmor acknowledged that access to and from “Hamas-controlled Gaza” is now rarely possible via Israel, but he said Israel had played no part in the tight control of Gaza’s other border crossing, via Egypt.

For the West Bank, he said, academics are not routinely denied entry. “There is no ban on the entry to the West Bank of any lecturer, professor, or researcher. There never was.”

He said, for example, that when the linguist and activist Noam Chomskywas denied entry into the West Bank in 2010, it was a mistake.

“A few years ago, a stupid immigration officer refused entry to Noam Chomsky and made an idiotic remark that was contrary to policy and his instructions. The officer was disciplined,” he said. “We are unclear where the allegations about interference with academic freedom come from.”

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