The Ignorant Advocates of the Boycott of Israel
Brooklyn, New York, was once famous for its Dodgers. Now it is infamous for the Political Science Department of Brooklyn College that has sponsored or cosponsored symposiums, in February 2013 and in November 2013, confined to speakers who support boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against the State of Israel. The PS Department has lent its support, even if not formal approval, to this travesty of academic freedom where only a one-sided, particularly boorish argument is presented.
At one such Brooklyn gathering in February 2013, the event, in which 22 organizations joined the PS Department in sponsorship, was essentially two lectures advocating the importance of BDS to help end what it insisted was Israeli apartheid and the illegal occupation of Palestine. The organizing group was Students for Justice in Palestine, part of the mission of which is a demand for the delegitimization and elimination of the State of Israel. This relentless group and its naïve supporters readily took advantage of the principle of academic freedom.
The advocates in Brooklyn in February were Judith Butler, professor of philosophy, and Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel Campaign. Butler has been intellectually concerned with sexual politics and gender disparities, and in Frankfurt on September 11, 2012 was awarded the Theodor W. Adorno prize for her "comprehensive work on gender theory." In view of her constant criticism of Israel, the event was doubly ironic: the coincidence of the infamous date; and the fact that Frankfurt is a partner city with Tel Aviv.
Butler has been criticized for her philosophical style as being "ponderous and obscure," and indeed in 1998 she was awarded the first prize in the annual Bad Writing Contest by the journal Philosophy and Literature. However, if her philosophical writings lack comprehensibility, there is no mistaking her views on the need to censure Israel.
Barghouti was born in Qatar, lived in Egypt and Ramallah, and received his undergraduate degree from Columbia. He has often spoken harshly of Israel's "apartheid system" and legalized system of discrimination. He was one of the first people to agitate for BDS since 2005 and for the severance of ties with Israeli universities and research centers. The irony in his case is that he is enrolled as a graduate student for a Ph. D in Tel Aviv University. He offers no comments on the extraordinary discrepancy between his rhetoric for boycott and his private interest.
One never ceases to be amazed at the obtuseness on the issue of boycotts of proponents of BDS, some of whom are affiliated with prestigious educational institutions such as the University of California at Berkeley, Columbia University, and the Institute for Advanced Study, and have been the recipient of honorary degrees. In their partisan advocacy and hostility to Israel they show an astonishing ignorance of life in the Middle Eastern countries as well as of the true nature of academic freedom.
Contrary to the expressed opinion of some BDS supporters there is nothing vague about academic freedom. It denotes a free exchange of ideas and opinions, an exchange in which the validity of those ideas can be examined and challenged, and which is not limited either internally in a particular country or externally. John Stuart Mill knew that free inquiry is the basis for acceptance or rejection of wrong or incorrect ideas and information.
Supporters of BDS have tried to qualify their position by suggesting that their call for action is against institutions, not individuals. But this is a sleight of hand evasion of the truth. A public university or academic institution, even if funded wholly or partly by public funds, does not take a stand, but individual academics who pursue knowledge or make pronouncements may do so. The president of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, like the president of Rutgers University in New Jersey, does not make pronouncements on abortion, or military cuts, or nuclear weapons in Iran. Nor do the presidents of Tel Aviv or Haifa universities issue proclamations as university policy on the nature and destiny of the disputed territories.
Much of the argument of the BDS people is equally ignorant and nonsensical: false accusations that Israel is an apartheid system; that its legal system rests on inequality; that its military authorities interfere with the access of Palestinian to higher education and to hindrances of free speech and assembly. They refuse to acknowledge that the Israeli government probably has more internal critics than has any other country, that the academic system is open to all who qualify, and that academics contribute to scientific research that may be useful for public purposes in the same way as is the mode in Western countries.
The BDS critics seem to know little of the real facts about the operation of Israeli universities in their call for boycott. It is true that complete equality for various reasons does not exist. Nevertheless, in figures pertinent to last year, 11.3% of undergraduates in Israeli universities are Arabs, 7% are MA students, and 3% are doctoral students. About 44% of Jewish students meet the minimum standards to be accepted at colleges, while 22% of Arabs do so. Fewer Arab teens take the matriculation (bagrut) examination than Jewish students. Only half of the Arabs who take it are successful while two-thirds of the Jewish students succeed. Interestingly, Christian Arabs have the highest rate of success in the bagrut exams.
One problem is that Arab students drop out of school (15%) more often than Jewish students (10%). Nevertheless, over 30% of the students at Haifa University are Arabs, as are 12% at the Hebrew University, and 8% at Tel Aviv University.
Between 2005-2008, there were 126 Arab Ph.D graduate students, and 3,714 Jewish students.
The Israeli Council of Higher Education has been conscious of the figures and in 2012 began a five-year plan to get more Arab students. Among other things it has suggested more university level courses to be taught in Arabic, as well as the usual courses for studying the Arabic language. The number of Arab faculty is 2.7% of the whole, but this is increased to 14% when it includes those at the 4 Arab colleges of teacher training. These faculties number about 250, some of whom received a Ph.D from an Israeli university.
One of the astonishing aspects of the ignorance of the BDS advocates, in Berkeley, New York, or Princeton, is that take no heed of or are ignorant of the fact that Arab students will be severely hurt by any boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Can the conclusion be drawn that they think that Arabs should be punished, that Arabs are upholders of the system they regard as evil and apartheid, and that the Arabs are equally guilty of the collective and individual punishment of which they declare Israel is culpable?
Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.