Tel Aviv University academics debate BDS for the first time
June 30, 2015
On June 8th, 2015 Tel Aviv University academics held a first ever discussion on BDS. The following is an address given by Dr. Hilla Dayan at the conference:
Dr. Hilla Dayan is a lecturer at Amsterdam University College in the Netherlands, and a co-founder of gate48, platform for critical Israelis in the Netherlands. Her talk was published at Mondoweiss, an independent website devoted to informing readers about developments in Israel/Palestine and related US foreign policy.
I would like to thank Irit Naaman and Nissim Mizrahi, head of the sociology and anthropology department. It speaks to the quality of the department under your leadership, Nissim, that such a controversial and difficult issue is up for discussion here.
This last week I was feeling a bit chilly. That may sound odd seeing that it’s June in Israel, but it may be that I was suffering from what lawyers diagnose as the “chilling effect”. I could not avoid thoughts such as “why did I say yes? why do I need this headache? I am only a guest researcher here. What if I am asked to give interviews on this topic? What will the audience think? Who will show up?” In short, I couldn’t sleep too well.
This is understandable considering the recent public uproar about BDS, and the political sphere in which this discussion is held. As you know, since 2011 a law has been added to the Israeli books, allowing lawsuits to be brought against anyone calling for a boycott on Israel. If I use this opportunity to call for supporting the academic boycott, I may be exposing myself to harassments, litigation and financial sanctions. The law applies to anyone who publicly takes part in a call for a boycott of academic institutions, including in the Occupied Territories, and not just to the instigators of such boycotts. In April of this year, the Israeli High Court essentially authorized the law with some minor changes. This is one of the most blatantly anti-democratic laws of the past few years. It is aiming at symbolic pre-emption, at criminalizing and stigmatizing all those who support the Palestinians’ nonviolent struggle through boycott, a tactic widely considered a legitimate form of protest all over the world. This law incites against groups like “Boycott from Within” and the Women’s Coalition for Peace and against research projects like “Who Profits from the Occupation,” with a view to obliterating them from the public sphere. In the last couple of weeks I have the feeling that somebody must have regretted the “chilling effect” of the law. It now seems that the boycott is a hot topic on the lips of the Israeli elite, including government ministers, captains of industry, university chancellors visiting the President and even Sheldon Adelson! We hold this debate on the academic boycott in the midst of a marked escalation of the rhetoric of BDS as a strategic threat to Israel’s existence. The point of the media frenzy is to mobilize the state’s official and informal propaganda organs and secure monetary pledges for the war on the global “hasbara” front.
Now let’s look at the academic context of our debate. I came of age academically in the 1990s, during what you may call the golden age of critical scholarship and activism here at Tel Aviv University, and at the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow. This university is my alma mater, and it was here that my intellectual and spiritual worldview was molded forever. However, it’s clear to me that you, young scholars today, operate in a very different climate. Let’s start from what has not changed since the 1990s. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Israeli universities have still not bothered to implement policies aimed at eliminating inequality in education. In terms of Inequality in education Israel rates close to Mexico, Turkey and Slovakia, at the bottom of the OECD. One might wonder why inequality and the exclusion of vast populations from the university is not seen as a strategic threat serious enough to bring university chancellors to the Presidential Mansion. I see a direct link between the universities’ indifference to issues of social justice in Israel, and their indifference to the goings on in the Occupied Territories, the bombing of schools and educational infrastructure in Gaza, the denial of freedom of movement and serial arrests of Palestinian students and staff and the rubberstamping of the settlement “University” of Ariel. In both the political and social fields the universities are operating under the well known law of physics the law of the conservation of hegemony.
The idea that as academics we are “independent” of state and market is always fallacious. Nevertheless, something did change in the past decade or so. Paradoxically, the neoliberal era has intensified the academia’s dependence on state and market. In addition, let us be frank about this, we witness the consummation of the transformation of Israel’s ruling elite. The new settler elite, which is religiously neoliberal, aspires expressly to mold Israeli society in its own image. Now that Naftali Bennet is Minister of Education and Miri Regev is Minister of Culture, it has the chance to complete from above the educational revolution that it initiated from below. We will soon be encountering the stormtroopers of McCarthyism, the Im Tirtzus and Academia Monitors, not as street level activists but as administrators and department heads. All over the world, the critical disciplines of the humanities and social sciences have been bled dry as the entire logic of the university system is subservient to market rationality and market needs. In the local context, our discipline of sociology is not only “leftist” by definition, and thus subject to termination with extreme prejudice, but also useless since it produces knowledge that is unusable to capital. Scholars critical of neoliberalism are also under Academia Monitor’s watchful eye; they too are seen as “anti-Israeli.” Moshe Klughaft, the “genius” who ran the failed electoral campaign of Habait Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), and who was paid 1.2 million NIS for it (!), is past master of this tactic. I am referring to the tactic of wearing down critical scholars through the endless proliferation of infantile provocations, defamations, lies, libel and plain old harrassment, or in his words: “it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it sticks”. When I’ve asked academics about this, I’ve been met with roaring silence as if these were nothing but a flock of annoying, harmless insects. The working assumption is that so long as the university does not take steps against you, you are safe. Well, forgive me for being crude, but that’s like someone who has shit stuck to the shoe and is not surprised to see flies all over it.
It’s worth mentioning that when one scholar, Neve Gordon, decided not to remain silent and sued, the court ruled in his favor; nevertheless, I am convinced that the decision not to devote attention or financial resources to this phenomenon is correct both in principle and practically speaking, for individuals. But this dynamic shows us how the neoliberal academia serves ruling elites by isolating us, compelling us to be concerned exclusively with our own survival under conditions of brutal competition, as adjunct faculty who are significantly worse off than our professors’ generation. Last summer, during operation Protective Edge in Gaza, this university did not hesitate to join in the hysterical militaristic mobilization and warned that it would take steps against “expressions of extremism” on Facebook. It’s not a coincidence that the university is indifferent to the defamation of its employees and does nothing to prevent the use of such ignominious tactics, but speaks out against “expressions of extremism” whose context is clear as day: protest against the war.
Even when the object of such attack is an academic center, it is always personal, always undertaken in the form of “blacklists” of researchers. These attacks and surveillance of students and teachers on social networks can have serious consequences. In an age in which graduate students are expected to act as entrepreneurs, in which you must constantly produce academic capital through publications, even before you have your research planned out, when you must become an expert in fundraising and marketing and must devote considerable resources and time to this activity, you had better be pretty careful and think twice before you write a Facebook status that could put you in trouble and end up draining your energy. To wrap up this part of my talk, let me just say that it’s unfair to expect that you, as young researchers trying to survive in the neoliberal academia, will stick out your necks and publicly declare your support for academic boycott, an act equivalent to professional suicide in the current political climate. And who would be served by this harakiri, exactly? So please, no self-sacrifice. What I do suggest, and what I believe in with all my heart, is that our generation, the generation born into the neoliberal revolution in education, has the ability and the means to catalyze a process of rethinking the university. We must challenge the imbrication in the occupation and in the reproduction of social inequality which reflect the twisted priorities of Israeli governments. Together, as an academic community, we need to devise collective strategies that are not only strategies of self defense, but that tackle head on the main issues: complicity with the occupation, academic profiteering from the occupation, institutionalized racism, incitement against the Palestinian citizens of Israel, inequality and exclusion. If we choose to pick our fight and deal exclusively with Israeli academia’s involvement in the occupation, we will rightly be seen as a group struggling only to maintain the current status of the Ashkenazi left in the academia for the foreseeable future. If we don’t fight to change the neoliberal academic culture in which we are all implicated just as we are implicated in the oppression of the Palestinians, if we don’t fight the McCarthyism that has flourished under its auspices, and if we don’t fight the institutionalized racism of the Israeli educational system then we are nothing but the servants of the antidemocratic, antisocial elite that rules the country.
So; the academic boycott. As you have all been waiting so politely, it’s time I presented the goods. I may disappoint some people here by not presenting the case against the involvement in the occupation of the Israeli academia in general, and Tel Aviv University in particular. It’s a strong case that shows that academia heavily services the security establishments, which it endows with special grants and speedy academic titles. Academic research is being used to provide legal and ethical justifications for the occupation, philosophers serve on military tribunals sentencing refusniks, archeologists dig in the service of the extreme right in Jerusalem, and the list is long. I would be glad to share with you these materials.
I would like to suppose that those of you who are ambivalent about the boycott are ambivalent due to legitimate career concerns or due to worries about the methods used by this campaign or about its efficacy in fighting the occupation. Supposing that these are your concerns, I will use the rest of my time to discuss the arguments of those who oppose the boycott as leftists. These arguments are rife with logical fallacies and sanctimony. Many of those who present them believe that pressure on corporations like Orange and the settlement boycott are legitimate, but not the academic boycott. Why, exactly? Why single the academia out for special treatment let everybody else suffer? Why should academics, who enjoy a privileged socioeconomic status, enjoy an immunity while other, much more vulnerable populations are exposed? On the one hand, they reject the politicization of the academia in the name of “academic freedom”, but on the other hand they never hesitate to resort to the “leftism defense”, so to speak, claiming that the Israeli academia is progressive, peaceseeking and critical of the regime; well, which is it? Is the academia political or apolitical? On the one hand, they are for dialogue and an exchange of ideas, but at the same time they adamantly oppose any demand to take a stance on the occupation, so what exchange exactly are we talking about here, and what is its practical import? They claim that the boycott impedes cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli academics. Excuse me, haven’t you gotten a little confused? Is it the boycott that impedes cooperation or the regime of separation and occupation?
Leftist opponents of boycott oppose the occupation and the government but aren’t the least bit ashamed to use the “Netanyahu defense” and present any international criticism as anti-Semitism or as a call for Israel’s destruction. Thankfully, we were spared the Netanyahu defense in the letter sent by the Israeli Anthropological Association to the American Anthropological Association, a letter which attempted to foreclose a debate on Israel last year’s AAA annual meeting by the way, an interesting approach when it comes from the mouths of the champions of “freedom of speech.” Nevertheless, readers were treated to the illuminating insight that the name “Israel” was mentioned in the meeting’s program more often than that of any other Middle Eastern country, an insight followed by one of the letter’s many exclamation marks. How embarrassing, using these rhetorical figures lifted from Netanyahu’s speeches at the UN or Ayelet Shaked’s Knesset tirades: why is Israel singled out? And why anthropologists? Why don’t you boycott ISIS or the Arab countries? The result is that of all those opposing the boycott, it is the leftist anthropologists mostly Ashkenazis of Anglophone extraction who resort to what I call the “villa in the jungle defence.” In its first collective declaration since 1988, the IAA presents a counterfactual reality in which it is the victim of the Palestinians and of American colonialism.
Let me end on an optimistic note and point out that 43 young scholars, myself included, declare our opposition to this attempt to prevent discussion about Israel. I’m here, among other reasons, to encourage you to join us, because more is doubtless to come. Many of us signed on anonymously, for reasons I don’t need to explain to you; nevertheless this is a collective endeavor which signals the arrival of a new generation, one which refuses to go on with the capitulations, the apologetics and the avoidance of responsibility which characterize many older and more privileged academics than ourselves. The claim that international pressure is what brought about the end of apartheid has already become a BDS cliché. Having done fieldwork in the archives of apartheid, I can say that the international boycott was indeed effective, but apartheid was first and foremost destroyed from the inside. The signal for its breathtakingly rapid collapse was the revolt against the educational system in the black townships. Students, including those on white campuses who joined the protest, started a campaign calling for ungovernability. Apartheid came down when the logic of control and the human food chain that it created lost their efficacy in organizing the everyday life of the privileged, the underprivileged and the semiprivileged. Internal resistance and outside pressure together culminated until they have reached the tipping point in the late 1980s. This is the possibility that I would like to point out in our own context. I do not support the boycott out of desperation, the belief that only the “civilized” world will save Israel from itself. I support the boycott from within, out of a love of the people living here, as an act of patriotic love for this place, out of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, out of fidelity to the idea of the university as handmaiden of society, not the state, and out of a hope that I will never ever lose, a hope for our future, after apartheid Israel.