Campus community divided over Israel boycott

The Palestinian group Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions has created a movement to academically boycott, divest and sanction Israeli universities, think tanks and students.

Depending on one’s political beliefs, Israel is either a pariah state or a bastion of democracy as the only long-standing democracy in the Middle East. This division was made apparent in the opinions of the Eastern Michigan University community regarding the boycott.

“It will have no appreciable impact there,” Jeffrey L. Bernstein, a political science professor at Eastern, said. “The parties on the ground need to take the hard steps, on both sides, to solve the problems. The BDS movement will move us no closer to peace.”

Duke Mabirou, a philosophy and political science major, doubts the movement will be widely supported in the United States.

“It’s more likely to gain support from western nations that take a critical eye towards government occupation, as well as other governments that remember segregation and imposing second class citizenship all too well,” Maribou said.

Started in 2005 by a coalition of Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations, BDS’s goals include the end of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, full equality for Arab and Palestinian citizens in Israel and the right to return for Palestinian refugees.

BDS supporters have compared both the movement and the criticism of the movement to previous boycotts of South Africa about apartheid. This has included support from South African social rights activist and former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who wrote a piece titled “Divesting from
Injustice” for the Huffington Post this year.

“I have been to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of apartheid,” Tutu wrote. “I have witnessed the humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children made to wait hours at Israeli military checkpoints routinely when trying to make the most basic of trips to visit relatives or attend school or college, and this humiliation is familiar to me and the many black South Africans who were corralled and regularly insulted by the security forces of the apartheid government.”

Bernstein does not think comparing the movement to boycott Israeli universities to boycotts of
South Africa in their period of apartheid is appropriate.

“In Israel proper – the pre-1967 borders – Arab-Israelis have far greater rights than the blacks did in South Africa,” Bernstein said. “Within the territories, Israel supplies the Palestinians with humanitarian aid and some degree of infrastructure. Israel has also offered, on numerous occasions, to pull out of the West Bank and live side-by-side with a Palestinian state, in exchange for Israel’s physical security. These offers have been repeatedly rebuffed.”

Bernstein said since Israel left Gaza in 2005, effectively turning it over to Palestine, it has been used as a launching pad for missile strikes on Israel.

“Many, many Israelis want there to be a Palestinian state in the West Bank, but they do not want it to imperil Israeli security – nor should they,” Bernstein said.

Regardless of who is right or wrong, the BDS movement has been gaining steam both in the U.S., which saw the University of California-Berkley approve joining the BDS movement, and in Israel.

According to the Jerusalem Post, there are quite a few organizations based in Israel openly supporting the boycott, including the Tel Aviv-based women’s group the Coalition of Women for Peace. Israeli academics abroad also have begun to support the movement, including Ilan Pappe, a professor and historian at the University of Exeter.

Criticisms of the boycott include accusations of anti-Semitism, something that Mabirou and Bernstein dismissed. They both had strong opinions regarding BDS’s claim that Palestinians do not have equal academic freedom in Israel.

“So many of the leading Palestinian proponents of BDS are doing their writing from within Israel’s 1967 borders,” Bernstein said. “When academics writing in Israel are leading critics of Israel, that suggests academic freedom exists.”

“People should be very careful when uttering the words ‘academic freedom,’” Mabirou said. “The only ideas and concepts worth learning are truths, not interpretations of the truth, If the BDS is boycotting academic institutions because the Israeli-influenced ones are bending the narrative to make themselves seem like complete victims when that is not the case, that’s one thing. But boycotting that should never be in the name of making the Palestinian people look like complete victims, either. What should always be taught is what we all know of the truth, nothing less, nothing more.”

A previously planned lecture on the subject by Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois was cancelled last week after Nelson was injured in an unspecified accident.

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