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JERUSALEM — A decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “strengthen higher education in the State of Israel,” as he put it, may hand the international academic boycott lobby a gift on a silver platter, Israeli analysts say.
In September, Israel’s Cabinet approved a controversial plan that will give the West Bank’s Jewish settlements their first university. To the dismay of more than 1,000 academics who have signed a petition against the move, it will transform Ariel University Center, a college, into a fully credentialed university. Unless the high court accepts objections to the upgrade filed by all except one of Israel’s universities, Ariel is expected to have university status by next September.
When Netanyahu announced the approval, he cast it as a decision of political as well as educational importance. “Ariel is an inseparable part of the State of Israel, and it will remain an inseparable part of the State of Israel in any future agreement, just like the other settlement blocs,” he said.
The upgrade, along with Netanyahu’s statenent, has dismayed some veteran activists against the academic boycott campaign, such as Bar-Ilan University political scientist Jonathan Rynhold. He told the Forward that he considers thedecision an “own goal” for Israel that “makes it seem like Israeli academia is politicized, which it isn’t.
“You’ve basically given a victory to those who present Israel as an outcast society where the government is running academia.”
The reaction of one of the key groups supporting the boycott seems to back this notion. Jewish Voices for Peace, a Jewish organization based in the United States and actively promoting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, said it would stand behind any Israeli-based drive to boycott Ariel. In the past, the group has supported artists who refused to perform in Ariel’s cultural center. “For us it is not so much a matter of whether it is a cultural or academic boycott, but of whether the effort targets the Occupied Territories specifically,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, JVP’s executive director. “If it does, then it is something that we could support, as in this case.” She added that Ariel University is “quite literally profiting from being a settlement enterprise.”
The main concern of Israel advocates is that the Ariel upgrade will allow the boycott movement to recruit beyond its traditional pool of staunchly anti-Israel academics to include those who take issue with only the occupation. “It makes life for the BDS movement easier, and the reason is that it enables them to garner the support of those who are critical of Israeli policy,” said Eran Shayshon, senior analyst at the Reut Institute, a think tank based in Tel Aviv.
Reut is one of the leading institutions formulating responses to what it terms efforts to “delegitimize” Israel. It has advocated highlighting the distance between hard-line boycott leaders and people who object to specific Israeli policies, and trying to convince the latter group that it can still feel affinity with Israel despite policy concerns.
In Shayshon’s opinion, the Ariel decision could push these two groups closer, adding “another layer of challenge” to their efforts to “drive a wedge” between them.
This assessment raises a certain irony, as the government’s keenness to upgrade Ariel is in part a reaction to the boycott movement. A senior figure in the Jewish community in Britain, where the boycott movement is strongest, recalled attending meetings where Israeli government members had said the upgrade was “seen as sticking two fingers up at the boycotters.” (Raising two fingers in the United Kingdom is equivalent to giving the finger in the United States.) The British Jewish official asked not to be named because of the sensitive nature of the subject.
Academic boycotters, who have been relatively quiet for the past 18 months, are claiming that they are already seeing an increase in interest as a result of Netanyahu’s decision, though their claims cannot be independently verified. It has “added fuel to the… fire of BDS against Israel in the academic and cultural sphere,” Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, the umbrella group for proponents of academic boycotts, told the Forward. He said that his group is “seeing more interest in and support for their institutional boycott campaigns.”
Tel Aviv University philosophy lecturer Anat Matar, who controversially supports a boycott against Israeli universities, believes that Israeli academia could have limited the fall-out of the Ariel upgrade if it had shunned Ariel earlier. “I think [the boycott] strengthened because you can see that Israeli universities, though they have appealed to the high court to stop this, maintain connections with Ariel,” she said.
Rynhold thinks that the Ariel decision has decreased the power of some of his favorite arguments against the boycott, such as the absence of a government agenda for academia, and the suggestion that academia is a liberalizing force in society. He sees the most effective line of argument being that all boycotts against genuine academics — including, in his view, scholars in reactionary regimes like Iran — are unhelpful.
Shayshon believes that the best approach is for Israel advocates to speak openly of their concerns about Israeli policy. In the case of Ariel, this means that when fighting any possible boycott efforts critics of the Ariel decision should mention it, demonstrating that one can object to the decision without becoming disillusioned with Israel. In this way, he hopes, Israel advocates can continue to “drive a wedge” between hard-liners and people with policy objections to Israel.
Some key figures in the fight against the academic boycott think that fears the Ariel decision will invigorate the campaign are overblown. David Hirsh, founder of the U.K.-based anti-boycott movement Engage and lecturer in sociology at the college Goldsmiths, University of London, said that it is “politically impossible” for the boycott movement to take advantage of the opportunity. The movement objects to Israeli institutions in general, and predicted that it will avoid focusing on Ariel, out of fear that “doing so implies that Tel Aviv University is legitimate.”
Michael Dickson, director of the Israeli branch of the American group StandWithUs, argued that the Ariel upgrade could actually be good public relations news for Israel. He said that his group will use the focus on Ariel to highlight the fact that there are Arab students as well as Jews there, and to argue that this shows the openness of Israeli academia. StandWithUs will also argue that Ariel is already a permanent reality that would be part of Israel under any future peace deal. “We are working every day to take complex issues and have them boiled down,” he said. “The boycotters use broad strokes and hope that mud sticks, but [countering them] is not beyond our reach.”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org