- The last four years have seen the promotion of boycott and divestment campaigns
against Israel in a number of countries. There have also been verbal or even physical
aggressions and discrimination against Israelis and Jews. The fact that the anti-
Israeli boycott campaigners do not propose boycotts of the crime-inciting Palestinian
universities indicates strongly discriminatory and even racist attitudes.
- Each academic boycott campaign could provoke a counterboycott, unless the boycotted
are exceptionally weak. Boycotts also provide a further argument for external
intervention in the academic world, both political and otherwise. The David Project's
documentary on the intimidation of pro-Israeli students at Columbia University has
shown that some universities' misdeeds can be effectively exposed by a small outside
actor without major financial resources.
- Israeli universities must play a larger role in fighting both anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli
discrimination on worldwide campuses. Collaborating with the Israeli government,
Diaspora organizations, academic institutions, and private activists may yield the
best results. Such task forces' main aim should not be to defend Israel but to turn the
accusers into the accused.
What do Concordia University in Montreal, San Francisco State University, the
University of California at Irvine, Columbia University, SOAS in London, the recently merged British academic teachers' unions AUT and NATFHE, and MAUP University in Kiev have in common? Over the past few years they have become major names associated with verbal and even physical aggressions and discrimination against Israelis and Jews. Many other
academic institutions in several countries could be added to this list.
At the very start of the current academic year, another group emerged to promote
anti-Israeli discrimination. In September 2006, sixty-one Irish academics sent a letter
to the Irish Times calling for a moratorium on support to Israeli academic institutions
at both national and European levels.1 Soon thereafter the student government at the
University of Michigan's Dearborn campus passed a resolution calling on the University's
Board of Regents to vote to divest from Israel.2 There was also an appeal for divestment
at Wayne State University (WSU). Thereupon, WSU president Irvin D. Reid came out with a statement saying: "Wayne State opposes divestiture and has
no intention of divesting itself of stocks in companies doing
business with Israel or any other legitimate state."
He added: "We encourage our students to use their
right to free speech, but accusations, acrimony and demands
such as divestiture are counter to the intelligent dialogue
and free discourse for which this university stands."3
Boycott and Academic Freedom
Since the academic campaigns against Israel began in
2002, tens of thousands of academics worldwide have signed
petitions opposing the boycott of Israel. They far outnumber
those who support the boycott. Only a limited number of
Israel's supporters would have to publicly take discriminatory
positions against boycotters and their allies to create a
substantial disturbance of international academic life. In some
professions where the anti-Israeli forces are strong worldwide,
such as in Middle Eastern studies or linguistics, pro-Israelis
might encounter difficulties. In others such as psychoanalysis
or medicine, the anti-Israelis would be handicapped.
Unless the boycotted are exceptionally weak, each
academic boycott could provoke a counterboycott. The Israeli
academic world is quite strong with its several Nobel Prize
winners and many top scholars. From a cycle of boycotts of
Israeli academics and counterboycotts, the university world
at large can only lose.
Boycotts would further harm the cause of academic
freedom at a time when there are already several reasons to
limit it. Its abuse by academic ideologues and propagandists
is a major argument against the prevailing near-absolute
academic freedom. At present, academics can say what they
want, it is difficult to fire tenured teachers, and there is no
government interference in university affairs.
Yet there are increasingly teachers in academia who
promote hate, bias, or manifest lies rather than seeking to
advance knowledge. Responsibility is a precondition for
academic freedom, but there are now many cases where
it is lacking.
Can Universities Reform Themselves?
Academic boycotts are likely to have other impacts as
well. The academic world has been aiming at self-governance
and trying to minimize outside interference. The many
distortions in the academic and administrative fields raise
doubt as to whether universities are capable of reforming
themselves. Boycott campaigns add another strong argument
for external intervention in the academic world.
Many politicians condemned the 2002 British anti-
Israeli boycott campaign and a few French imitations of
it. In 2006, the Report of the UK All-Parliamentary Inquiry
into Antisemitism concluded that "calls to boycott contact
with academics working in Israel are an assault on academic
freedom and intellectual exchange.4
Damaging Columbia University's Image
How effective even small outside groups can be in
damaging the image of major academic institutions was
demonstrated at Columbia University. Although there
were many complaints about the ongoing intimidation
of pro-Israeli students by teachers in its MEALAC (Middle
Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures) Department, the
administration did not react.
Finally a small nonacademic grassroots group, the
David Project, documented some of the abuses in a film
called Columbia Unbecoming. Its revelations generated
major negative publicity for Columbia and forced its
administration to undertake an internal inquiry. However
much the investigators covered up, they had to admit that
the grievance procedure was faulty.5 The Columbia affair also
frightened other university administrations that somebody
might "do a Columbia on them."
The David Project has shown that a university's misdeeds
can be effectively exposed by a small outside actor without
major financial resources. Because of this precedent, it
now suffices at other universities to collect testimonies on
a teacher's misdeeds with a tape recorder. These can then be
publicly exposed with an investment of a few dollars.
Another conclusion to be drawn from the success of
the David Project's exposure of Columbia is that if it had
been undertaken by a more powerful group, the university
would have been in much greater trouble. Other universities
should take this into account when failing to act against
misbehavior on their campus.
Had the Columbia inquiry not produced at least some
minor results, the next step would probably have been
outside pressure on major donors to stop supporting the
school. This is yet another aspect of how the seemingly closed
academic world can be dented by outsiders.
Failed Censorship in the Netherlands
Boycotts are only one type of anti-Israeli action on
campus. The methods used by the boycotters are applied in
many other areas. The motivations can be diverse. A university
administration's attempt to silence a prominent scholar in
the Netherlands shows how matters can boomerang for
those who want to suppress the truth.
In June 2006, administrators at Utrecht University
in the Netherlands refused to publish Prof. Pieter van der
Horst's analysis of Islamic anti-Semitism to be mentioned in
his farewell lecture. In a meeting that the university's rector
called with a committee of three other professors, several
arguments were given. These included that if Van der Horst
did not remove the references to Islamic anti-Semitism he
might be threatened by violent Muslims, a claim for which
the university has never provided evidence. He felt intimidated
and did not include the contested remarks in his lecture.
This attempt to distort academic freedom, even though Van
der Horst's contentions about Islamic anti-Semitism were valid,
led to widespread public attention for a lecture that otherwise
would most likely have gone unnoticed. Deleted passages were
published by several Dutch papers. An editorial in the national
daily, Volkskrant, concluded that if Van der Horst's claim about
the rector justifying censorship for fear of intimidation by
Muslims was true, the rector should be rebuked.6
Van der Horst published his view of what had happened
in the Wall Street Journal.7 The case now drew international
attention as well. The Israeli Academy of Sciences has invited
Van der Horst to come and lecture in Israel. The text of the
invitation said there would be no attempt to influence the
content of his lecture, "as is usual in the academic world."
A copy of the invitation was sent to the rector of Utrecht
University and the other members of the committee who
had tried to put pressure on Van der Horst.
This case has become a paradigm for how attempts to
suppress truth in universities can backfire. Van der Horst's
facts and views on Muslim anti-Semitism are now widely
known in the Netherlands. It also became another case
where a university could not hide its misbehavior behind
Whom to Boycott?
The subject of academic boycotts should also be analyzed
more scientifically. One would expect that human rights-oriented
academics would focus their boycott campaigns on
those universities where teachers and/or student unions call
for criminal acts. A rational scientific approach would be to
establish a list of institutions to boycott according to the
severity of the criminal incitement on their campuses.
As the right to life is a prime human right, heading the
target list of those to boycott should be universities that
employ teachers or admit students who call for genocide
or mass murder. Next in line would be those where suicide
bombing is encouraged. These would be followed by
campuses where murder on a smaller scale is promoted.
Below these on the list would be universities that teach
systematic discrimination and defamation.
Universities are often ranked according to scholarship.
A more complete view of the academic world would also rank
them according to crime incitement. Many institutions in the
Muslim and Arab Middle East would place high on such a list.
Many anti-Israeli boycotters cite Israeli attitudes
toward Palestinians as the official reason for their campaigns.
Analyzing crime incitement at Palestinian universities sheds
light on the true motives of the boycotters.
One example of genocidal incitement by a Palestinian
academic is a statement in 2004 by Dr. Ahmed Abu Halabiyah,
rector of advanced studies at the Islamic University of Gaza.
The Jews are the Jews….They do not have
any moderates or any advocates of peace. They
are all liars. They must be butchered and must be
killed….The Jews are like a spring - as long as you
step on it with your foot it doesn't move. But if
you lift your foot from the spring, it hurts you and
punishes you….It is forbidden to have mercy in your
hearts for the Jews in any place and in any land,
make war on them anywhere that you find yourself.
Any place that you meet them, kill them.9
Halabiyah made this statement on official Palestinian
Authority TV as part of a Friday sermon. This genocidal call,
then, issued from the governmental, academic, and religious
spheres of the Palestinian Authority and its civil society.
Al-Najah and Birzeit Universities
A second example comes from Nablus's Al-Najah
University. An exhibition there in September 2001 included
a reenactment of a Jerusalem suicide bombing. Associated
Wearing a military uniform and a black mask,
a Palestinian set off a fake explosion in a replica of
the Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem, where a suicide
bomber killed himself and 15 other people…. The
exhibit at Al-Najah University in Nablus was put
on by students who support the militant Islamic
movement Hamas, which carried out the Jerusalem
attack. Support for Hamas traditionally runs high
at the university, which is a hotbed for Palestinian
militants and has produced a number of suicide
bombers…. In another part of the exhibit, visitors
looked through dark windows to see mannequins
dressed as suicide bombers. Each had Islam's holy
book, the Quran, in one hand, and an automatic rifle
in the other. Real suicide bombers often assume this
pose in videos they make before staging attacks.10
This university's student union favors suicide attacks on
Israeli civilians. Terrorist organizations have also held rallies on
its campus that feature demonstrations of how suicide bombers
murder Israelis and blow up Israeli passenger buses.
A third example of a Palestinian university where
there has been major crime incitement is Birzeit University
near Ramallah. At the end of 2003, elections were held for
the student government council. The campaign featured
models of exploding Israeli buses. In the debate, the Hamas
candidate asked the Fatah candidate: "Hamas activists in this
university killed 135 Zionists. How many did Fatah activists
from Bir Zeit kill?" Needless to say, the "Zionists" are largely
It should also be noted that Hebrew University, where
many Arab students also study, was the target of a Palestinian
terror attack on 31 July 2002 that killed nine people and
wounded eighty-five. Hamas, which in 2006 became the
largest political force in the Palestinian territories, claimed
responsibility for the act. Those favoring a boycott of Israel
did not condemn the attack.12
There are also some Western universities that have
employed or given a platform to inciters of crime.13 Israeli
universities, for their part, score very low as far as incitement
to crime is concerned. They do not employ academics or have
student unions that promote genocide or murder. The fact
that the anti-Israeli boycott campaigners do not boycott
the crime-inciting Palestinian universities thus manifests
strongly discriminatory behavior.
Anti-Semitism and Academic Freedom
Some may rate academic freedom so high as a value
that they oppose boycotting even those institutions where
the most hideous crimes are encouraged. From this point
of view, boycotting Israeli universities or academics is also
highly discriminatory. The onus is thus on the boycotters to
prove that they are not racists.
The boycott and divestment campaigns prove that in
many universities, academic freedom is cleverly abused to
protect incitement, bias, and misbehavior. This is one more
among the many reasons why campuses should be subject
to greater external scrutiny.
For instance, online campus watches should be
encouraged. A frequent Pavlovian response from the university
world is to call such active monitoring McCarthyism. That,
however, should be exposed for what it is: an attempt to stifle
a normal type of criticism that exists in all other sectors of
civil society. Campus watches have nothing in common with
McCarthyism, which took place in a government framework
that had the possibility to impose penalties.
The development of the anti-Israeli boycott and
divestment campaigns also requires assessing the
effectiveness of Israeli academic reactions to the threats. A
closely linked question is what strategy to adopt in future
for combating Israel's enemies in the academic world.
Universities are places of knowledge and wisdom. Does
that also apply when they themselves are under threat?
When analyzing its reactions over the past few years, one
can only conclude that Israeli academia has not shown great
skill in fighting the boycott.
The first anti-Israeli boycott action was launched in the
United Kingdom in April 2002. It consisted of collecting signatures
from academics all over the world in support of a boycott.
In Israel, Hebrew University reacted first, in a way that at
the time was probably the most effective. Some scholars opened
a website asking academics to come out against the anti-Israeli
boycott. The idea was simple: for each supporter of the boycott,
to enlist many more scholars who opposed it. Concurrently,
efforts were made to convince well-known personalities to
condemn the boycott or visit Israel to show solidarity.
Yet another approach consisted of Israeli and pro-Israeli
academics publishing articles against the boycotters. Their
arguments often combined apologetic, moral, utilitarian,
and principled elements. Some noted that much domestic
criticism of current Israeli policy comes from within the
Israeli academic world. This is an apologetic argument that
is irrelevant to the key issue of anti-Israeli discrimination.
Some academics also made the moral point that an
academic boycott against Israel ignores ongoing terrorist attacks
against Israeli citizens. Others emphasized the utilitarian claim
that a boycott could damage continued academic cooperation
between Israelis and Palestinians. And some maintained that
a one-sided perspective contravenes academic standards of
truth-seeking. Although correct, this principled argument has
a somewhat pathetic tone. Usually anti-Israeli ideologists on
campus are not truth-seekers. They see their university positions
as a platform for promoting extremist interests.
The pro-Israeli academics who initially argued against
the boycotters were professionals in their scholarly fields. As
advocates of their cause, they were largely amateurs. Few stressed
only principles or accused the accusers in their writings.14
Professionals at Arguing
Top lawyers handle these matters better. Alan
Dershowitz wrote succinctly: "Any moral person who is aware
of the true facts would not sign a petition singling out Israel
for divestiture. Those who signed it are either misinformed
or malignant. There is no third alternative."15
When he spoke at Columbia University in February
2005, Dershowitz accused the institution: "This is the most
unbalanced university that I have come across when it comes
to all sides of the Middle East conflict being presented…. I
have never seen a university with as much faculty silence."
He added that faculty members in Columbia's MEALAC
Department encourage Islamic terrorism. Dershowitz
announced that if the investigatory committee published
a biased report, he would help organize an independent
committee that would include Nobel Prize winners.16
Occasionally an individual, in this particular case
unknown, has a brainwave on how to pierce an anti-Israeli
or anti-Jewish action with little effort. In July 2006, over a
thousand professors signed a petition on American college
campuses to condemn Israel's "aggression against Lebanon
and Gaza." One person signed the petition, which was further
circulated, with the name "Mr H. Nasrallah, Joseph Goebbels
Chair in Communications, Duke."17
In 2002, when a rapid reaction was needed, collecting as
many signatures as possible against the boycott was a practical
response. In the long run, however, it lacked sophistication. Even
worse, neither the Israeli government nor academia understood
that the anti-Israeli efforts were there to stay.
For several years, the heads of Israeli academia did
not believe that the boycott issue would return. This author
convinced then-minister Natan Sharansky to invite the
presidents of the Israeli universities and the Academy of
Sciences to a meeting on the subject, which finally took
place in autumn 2004. But these senior representatives of
the academic world said little of significance there, and no
action followed. One of their concerns was not boycotts by
their enemies but interference in their affairs by the Israeli
government, the meeting having been called by a minister.
This reinforces the impression that something is wrong
with the process of utilizing knowledge and intellect in the
academic world. If university administrations cannot, over a
lengthy period, identify the threats against themselves and
devise an intelligent response, perhaps academics' analytical
capabilities have value only as far as the past is concerned.
Israeli universities woke up again only in 2005 when
the AUT's initial acceptance of a boycott resolution in the
UK revived the boycott campaign. Now the threats were
concrete, and Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities finally took
action. When pro-Israeli British academics mobilized, the
motion was reversed. Legal threats against the AUT by Israeli
universities seem to have been effective as well.18
Where to Go from Here?
The anti-Israeli discrimination issue on campus has
developed over the past years in many directions even
though it has not had much success. There were efforts
to prevent Israeli academics from obtaining grants, incite
academic institutions to sever relations with Israeli ones and
scholars, convince academics not to visit Israel, and thwart
the publication of articles by Israeli scholars. There were
also refusals to review work of Israeli academics and to give
recommendations to students who wanted to study in Israel
or allow them credits for their activity there.
In addition, there were unofficial or concealed boycotts
such as foreign academics severing relations with Israelis with
whom they had maintained contacts for years. Attacks on
Jews and Israel in the world's universities take many forms.
A workable strategy must be based on an early evaluation of
threats. There is no standard model for the best defense.
Case studies need to be done that analyze each attack
and its key components. Questions to be asked include how
the anti-Israeli action manifests itself, who is behind it, what
anti-Semitic elements it includes, and whether anybody has
already reacted against it. Once these facts are clear the next
step is to design a strategy and mobilize allies.
The attacked are both Israeli universities and pro-Israelis on foreign campuses. Some of the latter have suffered
severe consequences for expressing their views, including
the loss of academic positions. Collaborating with the Israeli
government, Diaspora organizations, academic institutions,
and private activists may yield the best results. Such task
forces' main aim should not be to defend Israel but to turn
the accusers into the accused.
* * *
* This article is based on a presentation at the Conference on Academic Freedom and the Politics of Boycotts, Bar-Ilan University, January 2006. The full presentation will be published in the conference proceedings edited by Gerald Steinberg.
1. Haviv Rettig, "Irish Academics Call to Boycott Israel," Jerusalem
Post, 24 September 2006.
2. Kelly Fraser, "Dearborn Student Gov't Demands Divestment,"
Michigan Daily, 4 October 2006.
3. "Free Speech OK, but WSU Won't Divest," Detroit Free Press, 13
4. See Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism,
(London, The Stationery Office Ltd., 2006) 38-42.
5. Noah Liben, "The Columbia University's Report on Its Middle
Eastern Department's Problems: A Methodological Paradigm for
Obscuring Structural Flaws," Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol.
18, Nos. 1-2 (Spring 2006): 151-59.
6. "Academische vrijheid," Volkskrant, 21 June 2006. [Dutch]
7. Pieter W. van der Horst, "Tying Down Academic Freedom," Wall
Street Journal, 30 June 2006.
8. For an analysis of the Van der Horst case, see Manfred Gerstenfeld,
"Hem Mefachadim," Makor Rishon, 21 July 2006. [Hebrew]
9. Itamar Marcus and Barbara Crook, "Kill a Jew - Go to Heaven: The
Perception of the Jew in Palestinian Society," Jewish Political Studies
Review, Vol. 17, Nos. 3-4 (Fall 2005): 127.
10. Associated Press, "Gruesome Exhibit Marks Anniversary of
Uprising," 24 September 2001.
11. Mohammed Daraghmeh, "Hamas, Fatah Compete over Killing
Israelis in Campaign for Student Council Seats," Associated Press,
SFGate.com, 10 December 2003, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/
13. Jonathan Kay, "Hating Israel Is Part of Campus Culture," National
Post, 25 September 2002.
14. Manfred Gerstenfeld, "The Academic Boycott against Israel," Jewish
Political Studies Review, Vol. 15, Nos. 3-4 (Fall 2003): 9-70.
15. Alan Dershowitz, The Case for Israel (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley
& Sons, 2003), 207.
16. Jacob Gersham, "Dershowitz Says Faculty Members Work to
Encourage Islamic Terrorism," New York Sun, 8 February 2005.
17. Jacob Laksin, "Petition for Genocide," FrontPageMagazine, 28
18. Ronnie Fraser, "The Academic Boycott of Israel: Why Britain?"
Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, No. 36, 1 September 2005.
* * *
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is chairman of the Board of Fellows of the
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is an international business strategist
who has been a consultant to governments, international agencies, and
boards of some of the world's largest corporations. Among his ten books
are Europe's Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today's Anti-
Semitism (Jerusalem: JCPA, Yad Vashem, WJC, 2003) and Israel and Europe:
An Expanding Abyss? (Jerusalem: JCPA and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2005).
Another book he has edited, Academics against Israel, will appear in 2007.
Dore Gold and Manfred Gerstenfeld, Co-Publishers. Joel Fishman, Editor. Chaya Herskovic, Associate Editor. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 13 Tel-Hai St.,
Jerusalem, Israel; Tel. 972-2-561-9281, Fax. 972-2-561-9112, Email:
[email protected] In U.S.A.: Center for Jewish Community Studies, 1616
Walnut St., Suite 1005, Philadelphia, PA 19103-5313; Tel. (215) 772-0564, Fax. (215)
772-0566. © Copyright. All rights reserved. ISSN: 1565-3676.
The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect
those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.