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Academics Lining Up for and Against Proposed Boycott of Israeli Scholars

April 23, 2002
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Thousands of scholars have joined in condemning an “unprecedented” attempt to suspend European-Israeli academic and cultural exchanges, calling it “an improper and immoral act of collective punishment” against a population with “diverse political views.”

As of April 21, more than 2,500 European, American and Israeli scholars, including 100 from Germany, had signed a protest letter against an anti-Israel boycott proposed by the British-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

The Israeli-based protest can be found on the Internet at

That was a response to the boycott initiative published April 6 in the London Guardian newspaper and signed by some 120 European scholars, most from England, and at least one in Israel.

Meanwhile, some 300 French scholars also joined the call for a boycott, publishing their petition in the daily newspaper Liberation on April 16.

According to the Inter Press Agency, some of the signatories were “of Jewish origin.”

The British-based boycott initiative said it would be “timely” to call a moratorium on European-Israeli academic cooperation “until Israel abide[s] by UN resolutions and open serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, along the lines proposed in many peace plans including most recently that sponsored by the Saudis and the Arab League.”

The counter-reaction was swift. In their open protest letter, Israeli professors Hillel Shuval, Eva Illouz and Aaron Benavot of Hebrew University in Jerusalem criticized the boycott idea on several grounds:

Much internal criticism of current Israeli policy comes from within Israeli academic circles;

A boycott against Israel ignores ongoing attacks against Israeli citizens;

A boycott might damage continuing academic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.

“A unilateral boycott of Israeli academics unfairly identifies Israel as the only party responsible for the violent shift in Israeli-Palestinian relations,” the professors wrote. “Such a one-sided perspective is contrary to academic standards of truth-seeking.”

In Germany, word of the protest spread quickly through the academic community, mostly via e-mail. Reflecting popular opinion here, all signatories reached by JTA said they did not like Israel’s handling of the current crisis but did not believe an academic boycott was the right response.

“I mailed the letter to almost everyone in my directory,” said Stefanie Schuler-Springorum, director of the Hamburg-based Institute for the History of German Jewry, who learned of the protest from friends in Israel.

“I have friends who have rejected military service but I also have friends who are serving in the territories,” she said. “It is horrible, very depressing.”

“We had been talking a lot because we feel so helpless,” Schuler-Springorum said. “And then a friend wrote to me about this letter and said, ‘here is something we can do.’ “

“It seems to me absolutely stupid to hold all Israel hostage for what the government does,” said sociology professor Martin Kohli of the Free University in Berlin, who signed and e-mailed the letter to some colleagues. “This call for a boycott was very ill-conceived and not at all helpful.”

One argument for a boycott was, he said, that if the West can collectively punish Iraq, they also can punish Israel.

“But Israel is a democracy and people do speak out. Political life is differentiated and publicly aired,” Kohli said. “It just does not make sense to create an embargo situation.”

“I must admit that I was really shocked by this,” agreed Annette Vowinckel, who also signed the protest letter.

“Some of the sharpest critics of the Israeli government whom I know are Israeli academics,” said Vowinckel, who has a post-doctoral position in cultural studies at Humboldt University in Berlin. “I don’t know why one should hold them responsible collectively.”

“Criticism should be directed to the government, not at the academic community,” said one German historian who nevertheless hesitated to sign the protest letter.

“On the other hand, the Israeli academic community also has its prejudices,” explained the professor, who asked to remain anonymous. “For example, historians may have a liberal bent, but if you go deep into crucial questions, such as the history of the founding of the state of Israel, it appears as only a Jewish history. They are establishing legitimacy for the state.”

At least one German scholar who supported the boycott had to deal with “cyber protest” as a consequence.

Neurophysiologist Juliette Frey, who signed the British-based anti-Israel statement, said she was subjected to a “terror e-mail campaign” that had made recent weeks “horrible.”

She did not elaborate on the source and content of the offending e-mails.

“I stand by my decision” to support a boycott, wrote Frey, a professor at the Institute of Neurobiology in the former East German city of Magdeburg. In her e-mail statement, she said she “hopes for a quick resolution to the situation and a peaceful future in the Mideast.”

But a boycott will not help bring about this goal, historian Frank Stern of Ben Gurion University said.

Instead, “we need cultural and academic cooperation because, right now, these are the only fields — beside joint Israeli/Palestinian grass roots initiatives — where one can see elements of a civil society in Israel,” said Stern, noting that many European-Israeli academic projects include Palestinian scholars.

Instead of breaking down connections, scholars should be strengthening their ties to Israeli academics with whom they agree, Stern said. “Each and every step that helps the peace-oriented [forces] should be done.”

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