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How Israeli University Presidents Are Proving The Case For Boycott

Above photo: Open University of Israel campus, 2014. Wikimedia Commons.

Israeli university presidents condemnation of the Gaza solidarity protests in the U.S. is revealing Israeli universities’ complicity in occupation, apartheid, and genocide.

On April 26, 2024, the presidents of Israel’s nine research universities — Ben-Gurion, Weizmann Insitute of Science, Hebrew University, the Open University, Ariel, Tel-Aviv, Haifa, and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology — issued a collective statement in response to the Palestinian solidarity student encampments that were spreading across university campuses throughout the United States and beyond. The statement was a remarkable condemnation of student protestors in the U.S. as engaging in “severe violence, antisemitism [and] anti-Israel sentiment,” characterizing these students as “incited and hateful groups,” who are allegedly “organized and supported” by “terrorist organizations.”

The presidents claimed that “Israeli and Jewish students and faculty members” at U.S. universities were being threatened with “physical harm” by the protest camps. They called on U.S. university presidents to adopt “measures beyond the conventional tools available to university administrations” in order to respond effectively to these “extreme situations,” and invited Jewish and Israeli students and faculty in the U.S. to “join Israeli universities” where they promised them “a welcoming academic and personal home.”

This statement is important to pay close attention to for several reasons. One is that it helps to highlight a fundamental truth about Israeli universities. For the past two decades, PACBI (the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) has called for an international boycott of Israeli higher education institutions on the grounds that “these institutions are deeply complicit in the Israeli system of oppression that has denied Palestinians their basic rights guaranteed by international law,” and “are a key part of the ideological and institutional scaffolding of Israel’s regime of occupation, colonialism and apartheid against the Palestinian people.” More recently, Maya Wind’s (2024) book, Towers of Ivory and Steel: How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom, has strongly challenged the perception in the West of “Israeli universities as liberal bastions of pluralism and democracy,” arguing along with PACBI that these universities “constitute central pillars of Israeli settler colonialism” and “actively sustain Israeli…military occupation and apartheid.”

Over the past seven months, Israeli university presidents have shown their strong, partisan support for the Israeli state’s war on Gaza. Their April 26 statement was a direct echo of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s condemnation of U.S. university student protesters two days earlier, whom he described as “antisemitic mobs” who “call for the annihilation of Israel,” “attack Jewish students” and “attack Jewish faculty” in a manner “reminiscent of what happened in German universities in the 1930s.” Netanyahu called the protests “unconscionable” and insisted that they had to be “stopped” and “condemned unequivocally.”

The Israeli president’s statement of April 26 was not an isolated event, but one of several statements made since the start of Israel’s war on Gaza. Throughout these statements, the presidents raise concern that “many college campuses [in the U.S.] have become breeding grounds for anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments.”

While making token gestures of support for the importance of academic freedom and freedom of speech, the Israeli university presidents make clear what kind of speech is acceptable to them. They condemn the expressions “from the river to the sea” as “advocating for the annihilation of the State of Israel,” and “intifada” as “endorsing terrorist activities against Israeli citizens”; as well as any speech in which Israel “is mischaracterized as an oppressor.” They welcome “clear statements of solidarity and support for Israel,” which they believe “are, at their heart, statements in solidarity with humanity, enlightenment, and progress.”

The Israeli university presidents consistently portray the war on Gaza in Manichaean terms: “there are not ‘good people on both sides,’” they claim in one statement; the war is a fight between “light” and “dark,” they state in another. The presidents insist that universities in the U.S. “must take responsibility for the views they perpetuate,” and that “what is required are clear and decisive actions” to “guide the moral and ethical development” of American university students so that they can properly “separate right from wrong.”

Notably, throughout the war, the presidents do not utter a single expression of concern for Palestinians. In one statement, they insist that “there can be no support for purposeful massacres of civilian populations,” and call for a united “stand against barbaric violence perpetrated on civilian populations.” But this refers to the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, not the seven-month-long Israeli assault on Gaza, that has led to the death of over 34,000 Palestinians, the majority of whom are women and children. There has been no comment from the Israeli university presidents either about the Israeli state’s destruction of all universities in Gaza, or the killing of dozens of their academic colleagues across Gaza.

In their own words, the Israeli university presidents have, over the past seven months, thus given direct evidence in support of the arguments made by PACBI for over two decades. In no sense have these presidents sought either to take a stand of criticality or dissent toward the actions of the Israeli state or pursued a course of claimed neutrality with regard to the Israeli state; rather, what has been exhibited is fervent and consistent partisanship. To oppose apartheid, occupation, and genocide in Palestine, we need to oppose the research universities of Israel.

‘Institutional Neutrality’

A second issue is that these statements need to be considered in tandem with the statements that have been made recently by a growing number of university presidents in the U.S. and UK, in response to student and faculty demands for divestment from corporations that are implicated in Israeli occupation, apartheid, and genocide, as well as boycott of Israeli higher education institutions.

Over the past seven months, there has been an embrace by many of these presidents of claims of “institutional neutrality.” Institutional neutrality, argues Vanderbilt University Daniel Diermeier, “is the commitment of a university and its leaders to refrain from taking public positions on controversial issues unless the issue directly affects the university’s core mission and function,” and is “a core value” that is “vital” and “invaluable” since “it keeps universities out of politics,” while remaining focused on “the pursuit of knowledge and truth.”

In the UK, King’s College London has embraced a policy of “values-based impartiality,” which it defines as “an active matter of principled restraint” in which the university and its leaders will avoid taking public positions or making public statements on “social and geopolitical issues,” except where these “directly impact the security and safety of our staff and students.” Up the road from KCL,  University College London President and Provost Michael Spence insists “that support for academic freedom and freedom of debate requires that a university not adopt an institutional position in relation to any given issue, including an issue of armed conflict.”

In the U.S., the President and Provost of Stanford University released a statement shortly after the start of Israel’s war on Gaza to emphasize the importance of “maintaining university neutrality,” and reaffirm the university’s “general policy of not issuing statements about news events not directly connected to campus.” Even at Columbia University, President Minouche Shafik has insisted that the university is committing to a principle of “institutional neutrality,” even as she was calling in the New York Police Department to arrest and evict student protesters from campus, not just once but twice.

Such claims of university neutrality have been strongly criticized by student and staff protesters, labeled as a “lie,” “contrived position,” and “smoke screen” that covers up university “complicity” in Israel’s war on Gaza and “a very clear position that [a university] has taken that is plans to do nothing to stop genocide.” In a response to Daniel Diermeier, a Vanderbilt University student quoted Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s argument that “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” While at Chapman University, an activist with Students for Justice in Palestine invoked Elie Wiesel’s words that “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim,” and “silence encourages the tormentor never the tormented.” At Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, the Trinity Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions group handed out fliers at an open day event that “asked prospective students, ‘Do you want to attend a university that is neutral on genocide?’”

But there is also a fundamental question that is raised by the repeated collective statements of the research university presidents in Israel. How can universities in the US, UK and elsewhere continue to promote and engage in direct partnerships with Israeli universities, that are absolutely not neutral with regard to the war on Gaza, while at the same time claiming a stance of institutional neutrality on this very same issue? Both things together simply do not wash.

There is, finally, a broader question for all of us who are engaged as workers and students in the higher education sector: the role of universities in relation to occupation, apartheid, and genocide, no matter where these universities are located. Western universities make pretenses of highly dubious neutrality, even as their research, teaching, institutional, funding, and pension ties with corporations and other institutions involved in supporting occupation, apartheid, and genocide in Palestine tell a different story. Israeli universities engage in direct, open, and partisan support of the Israeli state, pursuing what the International Court of Justice has argued constitutes, at least, a “plausible genocide.” But these are not the only models for universities to take. The model of the public university has long put forward an alternative vision of the university as a vital space for critique and dissent in contemporary society and as an important actor in the ongoing fight for social justice. This is the “importance of speaking truth to power” that Craig Calhoun, former President of the London School of Economics, argues for in his discussion of academic freedom and public knowledge.

“Universities have never been, are not and should never be neutral on the social issues of the day,” insists John Grant. Or, as the late Stuart Hall once put it, in a widely cited quotation, “the university is a critical institution or it is nothing.”

In the end, this is a fight in support of the people of Palestine; but it is also a battle for the soul of the university.

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