A boycott of Israeli universities, who could possibly object?

Jul 3, 2023
Combination Israel flag and Palestine flag for both countries have politic conflict and military war concept.

In a significant, scholarly book ‘Boycott Theory and the Struggle for Palestine’, Dr. Nick Riemer describes Palestinian civil society as ‘among the most strangulated and oppressed on the planet.’

On June 26 in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Gideon Levy writes, ‘There aren’t many populations in the world as helpless as the Palestinians who live in their own country…they are not even allowed to defend themselves… Over three days last week, 35 pogroms have been carried out by settlers. Since the beginning of the year, around 160 Palestinians have been killed by soldiers.’

In response to this humanitarian catastrophe, democratic, alleged human rights based governments look on, hence the urgent need to resuscitate the freedom to protest savagery and to boycott institutions complicit in oppression. In his explanation of the legitimacy of an academic boycott of Israeli universities, Riemer explains the nature of that freedom.

To oppose their oppression by the Israeli government and its settler accomplices, Palestinians have pleaded for the boycott of Israeli universities. Yet such is the power of the Israeli narrative that they are victims, such is the negative connotation of the word boycott, that even in so called freedom loving Australian universities, support for a boycott is limited, the fear to protest widespread.

Reasons for boycotting Israeli universities should be obvious. Israeli control of Palestinians’ lives destroys a generation’s chances of obtaining education. Palestinian university staff and students are regularly arrested and detained, their campuses closed, sometimes for years. On the West Bank, checkpoints obstruct any journey to and from university and seriously limit times when classes could be held.

Even in countries which claim to know about freedom, protests on behalf of Palestinians and in support of the BDS movement are suppressed, heads of universities operate as though representing the Israeli state. In the same breath, in the UK, US, Australia and several European countries, academic managers say they respect students’ freedom to organise in protest against human rights abuses.

If Australian campuses were bastions of free speech, support for Palestinians’ rights to self determination would flourish. Instead, universities are sites of control. Staff, so conditioned by restrictions on speaking freely, fear to protest their working conditions, let alone support for Palestinians.

Across campuses in western countries, political responsibilities of being an academic, as in expressing outrage about denial of education to Palestinians, would be enhanced by questioning the distinction between activism and academia. Instead of thoughtless Vice Chancellors adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism which limits freedom of speech, staff and students could insist that Israeli universities facilitate a repressive state.

Chomsky stressed that instead of complicity with power, academics should become politically engaged. Only by doing so could freedoms be realised, only a certain politics could end the absurdity of claiming that free speech prevails but discussion of abuses by an Israeli government must not be allowed.

If campuses were alive to the politics of responsibility, they would also reject the accusation that Israel is always selected as the abuser of rights. By contrast, discussion of the rights of Palestinians has, somewhat ironically, been selected for boycott. Riemer warns that in pursuit of freedom to advocate a boycott, ‘beware of the idea more analysis, debate and dialogue is the highest priority.’


Although university campuses are not the only contexts from which political protest can occur against a life and death catastrophe experienced by Palestinians, Riemer’s boycott theory provides significant lessons.

• University campuses are not havens of free speech. Unless the structures are removed which prevent staff and students engaging even to protest their working conditions, it is unlikely that abuses of Palestinian students would be addressed.

• The connotation of the notion ‘boycott’, needs to be reframed. In the case of Israeli oppression of Palestinians, instead of boycott activities implying a restriction of freedom, they should be interpreted as fostering a freedom for education for a people previously denied such rights.

• A world anaesthetised by the false claim that Israel is a liberal, enlightened democracy needs to wake up. Widespread acceptance of authoritarianism could be resisted by supporting the boycott (BDS) campaign to achieve Palestinians’ rights to self determination, and be crystal clear, such an initiative has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

• If academics protested destruction and murder in Palestine, they’d become more politically astute about their own positions, if politicians acted in favour of international law, they would enjoy greater public respect.

There are incalculable benefits from free speech if it is exercised, if it is used to debunk assumptions in universities and in political parties that freedom to protest abuses of Palestine exists, despite evidence that this blessed right is hemmed in on all sides.

On what grounds could anyone not protest savagery towards Palestinians, not support a boycott of Israeli universities, not hold to account the university managers, politicians and governments who ignore a humanitarian catastrophe?

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