The problems with boycotts

Attempting to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a very complicated and next to impossible feat. Politicians, the masses, lobbyists, military strategists, so called terrorists and peace activists have been scratching their heads trying–and usually failing-to make inroads in getting the Israelis to stop their systematic and continuous injustice against Palestinians.

The latest attempt in this direction has been the decision of British academics to boycott two Israeli universities. One, Haifa University, for its discrimination against supporters of Palestinians, the other, Bar Ilan, for academically sponsoring the settlement university at Ariel.

Boycotts often have a life of their own. At times they are effective nonviolent instruments of protest and at other times they produce the opposite effect. I am not sure what will be the ultimate result of this latest British decision, but knowing how the Israelis and their supporters work worldwide, I am concerned that it might not produce the kind of results that were produced by the academic boycott of South Africa.

To be sure, one can think of many good reasons for the idea of an academic boycott of Israeli institutions of higher learning. A boycott can highlight the continuation of occupation and the apartheid policies employed against Palestinians. It shifts emphasis from a violent struggle to that of a nonviolent one. International boycotts remove the strong moral component of international acceptability that has allowed Israel to carry out its injustices against Palestinians for so long.

On the other hand, one can make the argument that open-ended boycotts without any clear and realizable goals can become a double-edged sword and serve to remove the possibility of influencing those who are wavering while weakening those who might be on the side of justice for Palestinians.

Palestinians, especially those of us living in the occupied territories, have often been caught in this dilemma. The Arab world for some time has practiced a strong boycott of Israel and Israeli cultural and educational institutions, insisting that any cooperation with these organizations is a gift to Israelis and represents a sense of normality in an abnormal situation. But Palestinians who live in close proximity to Israel, and especially those who believe that change will only happen if there is constant interaction in order to change attitudes, have often advocated cooperation rather than confrontation. The issue becomes even more difficult when by boycotting Israelis one tends to lump the entire population into one basket, including those who are publicly supportive of Palestinians.

Professor Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al Quds University, has always argued in favor of full Palestinian-Israeli cooperation because of the many benefits to Palestinians such cooperation can produce. As a result, Al Quds University has been actively pursuing tens of cooperative projects with Israeli academic institutions including Haifa University and Bar Ilan.

The boycott experience that Palestinians in Jerusalem have with the municipality is a case in point. At the time, the decision to boycott the illegal unification of the city under an Israeli municipal council and elections law produced an automatic boycott. But nearly 40 years later, Palestinians in Jerusalem find themselves stuck, unable to undo the boycott decision that has resulted in the monopoly by Israeli municipal politicians of decisions affecting the Palestinian Arab population of the city.

While it is certainly not guaranteed that Palestinians would have faired much better had they participated in municipal elections under Israeli rule, there is strong evidence that Jerusalem’s Palestinian population would have been in a better position had they had strong representation in city hall.

The academic boycott tool is a very powerful nonviolent method of protest. But if it is not used cleverly and with a clear and realizable goal it can easily boomerang, making it even more difficult for others to use this tool.