Israeli Bill Reflects Frustration With Academics Who Support Boycotts

Gideon Sa'ar, Israel's education minister (left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), says he welcomes sanctions against professors at public universities who support boycotts. (David Silverman, AP Images)
July 14, 2010

An effort to discourage Israeli public-university professors and others from supporting boycotts of the Jewish state is roiling the country's academics.

While an academic boycott and other efforts to isolate the country have long been debated, recent public condemnation of Israel's botched military raid on a flotilla of ships bound for Gaza has heated up the political situation.

Israeli legislators, feeling embattled by hostile world opinion, are considering a series of measures responding to what they regard as inappropriate sanctions against their country and its leaders, some of whom have been threatened with arrest for alleged war crimes.

A bill introduced in June in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, proposes that Israelis could be sued by anyone affected by a boycott and forced to pay up to $8,000 in damages. Foreigners could find themselves banned from entering Israel for 10 years and denied the ability to hold a bank account or purchase land.

The primary target of the new legislation, which is sponsored by 24 of 120 Knesset members, is the Palestinian Authority boycott of goods from Israeli settlements, which has also won support from some European countries.

But according to a draft of the bill, supporters of academic boycotts would be included in its provisions. Such boycotts urge professors and students not to attend academic conferences in Israel, not to invite Israeli scholars to conferences, not to accept them as students or faculty members in their own institutions, and not to publish scholarly articles by Israelis.

Gideon Sa'ar, the Israeli minister of education, has welcomed the bill and says he backs sanctions against pro-boycott professors who serve at public universities.

"If a person calls for an academic boycott of the institution in which he teaches, the institution should address this," the minister told Israel Radio.

In response to his support of the bill, more than 500 Israeli academics, including former education ministers, signed a petition that declared: "Freedom of expression and academic freedom are the oxygen of the Israeli academic system."

It continued: "Israeli academia will suffer great damage if politicians dictate to it what is right and wrong to say, think, research, and teach, and force it to adopt these kinds of criteria for accepting, promoting, or rejecting researchers and professors."

A Focus on Academics

"The minister of education clearly said that it's a reaction to people like me," said Neve Gordon, a professor of politics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beersheba, who is one of three professors in Israel publicly supporting an academic boycott. His stance has catapulted him from obscurity to international celebrity and also brought him death threats. Mr. Gordon described the bill as "a certain trend of legislation that has to do with loyalty to the state."

Israeli legislators and others argue that the proposal is the right reaction to a hostile environment.

"If someone is banning Israel we must protect ourselves. I think it's appropriate that people will know that we will not keep silent," said Danny Danon, deputy speaker of the Knesset and a sponsor of the bill.

He said Mr. Gordon "should not be teaching at a university which receives funds from the government. He can go and work for Peace Now or other organizations, but he cannot work in a university that is funded by the government and call on people to boycott Israel."

Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, outside Tel Aviv, and a strident opponent of academic boycotts, said the Knesset was reflecting public concern in Israel.

"This is one of a number of legislative initiatives that reflect a very broad perception that the boycott is a dangerous form of warfare, of delegitimizing Israel. It does reflect the public mood. These are not marginal members of the Knesset who are doing this," he said.

But Mr. Steinberg said he had serious reservations about legislation focusing on academics.

"I think it's important to have these issues debated because they are core threats to Israel and there are a small number of Israelis who have been attracted for various reasons to participate in this isolation process through boycotts and other forms of demonization. I don't favor legislation that's focused on academics. I think this is something that has to be worked out by the academic community," he said.

Mr. Gordon and Mr. Steinberg agree on very little, but neither feels that the bill has much chance of becoming law or withstanding judicial review.

"I doubt it will pass, and even if it does it's unclear it will pass the High Court of Justice because I think it is in contradiction with two of Israel's Basic Laws concerning freedom of employment and freedom of speech," said Mr. Gordon.