Reflections from Leeds’ Debate on the Academic Boycott of Israel

Posted 5 years ago

Last month at the University of Leeds, four established academics gathered to debate a motion on the academic boycott of Israel: “This house believes that UK academics should join the movement for academic boycott by refusing to engage with any Israeli academic institutions until Israel ends the occupation and abides by international law.” 


Our aim in organizing the event was to open a direly-needed space to reflect on the relationship of Israeli academia to the long-standing Israeli occupation of Palestine and think about the potential efficacy of an academic boycott of Israel.


Speaking for the motion were Professor Emeritus Jonathan Rosenhead (LSE) and Birmingham lecturer-turned independent scholar Dr Sue Blackwell. Leeds’ own Dr Hugh Hubbard and Professor Emeritus Robert Fine (Warwick) spoke against the motion.


A blind vote at the beginning of the event suggested that the audience – around 100 academics, administrators, students and community members – was inclined to support the academic boycott of Israel (53 for, 37 against). The blind vote that closed the event revealed that Jonathan and Sue’s powerful arguments for boycott had created even more support, with 68 in favor of and 23 against academic boycott. This was a nuanced debate that brought to the fore a number of issues that any social justice activists should be aware of. (You can find both Jonathan’s and Robert’s speeches here.)[1]


The votes are telling. While the initial vote suggests that support for the academic boycott of Israel might already be substantial, the fact that over a third of those originally the motion changed their minds implies that there is great potential for developing wider support and implementing academic boycott measures within British academic institutions.


Equally telling, if also far more worrying for notions of academic freedom, was the process of putting this debate together. As one of the core organizers for this event, I learned a few things about why putting academic boycott on the map of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement has been so difficult. Nearly a year in the making, this rather lo-fi event took a while to take place for two key reasons: first, it was difficult to find individuals willing and able to speak against the motion and, second, finding a willing ‘neutral’ sponsor was equally difficult.


As organizers, we reached out to academics and academic organizations and departments in and around Leeds for both sponsorship and people to oppose the motion. Interestingly, nearly every decline yielded by these requests was qualified, often by critical statements on Israel. So when one individual told us that he felt the promotion of academic boycott reflected a poor ‘moral outlook’, he added that he felt it was alright to boycott specific Israeli government institutions, companies and even ‘specific Israeli individuals’. Similarly, every academic organization that we asked to sponsor the debate indicated that there was a good measure of support for the debate amongst those in the organization and that many felt the event was important.


This was the good news.


Indeed, that many individuals were as quick to outline their support for the debate or for some boycott measures as they were to criticize academic boycott further suggests that the growing number of academic boycott victories is forcing those who oppose academic boycott onto the back foot. While criticizing Israeli academic institutions is not yet commonplace within British academia, those who disagree with such critiques now feel compelled to not only justify their opposition to academic boycott but to define the limits of their support for BDS.


Now the bad news.


Given the reticence of so many academic bodies to put their name to an event as neutral as a debate, this event proved a frustrating and distressing lesson about ideas of academic freedom – in Palestine/Israel, the UK and elsewhere.


There are a lot of ways in which debates on academic boycotts of Israel invite discussion on the principle of academic freedom anywhere. Most importantly, ideas about academic freedom are central to the need for academic boycott, though they are often used in attempts to delegitimize BDS measures. For instance, as Stanford University Professor David Palumbo-Liu has pointed out, those who vocalized their opposition to the American Studies Association’s resolution to support an academic boycott of Israeli institutions often cite the need to maintain the principle of academic freedom (implied: for Israel) but failed to highlight the myriad ways in which the ongoing occupation of Palestine prohibits the free movement of peoples and ideas within Palestinian academia (and larger Palestinian society).


Many of these issues were raised during the debate at Leeds, but what became clear well before the debate took place is that academic freedom – including the freedom to debate (supposedly) controversial issues in an open and intellectually engaged manner – is already limited in the UK. It is limited by the fears of academics and their organizations who feel susceptible to charges of ‘antagonism’, as one group told us, or because it might attract ‘controversy’, as another department told us. But what use is the principle of academic freedom in the discussion and debate of uncontroversial topics?


I am proud that this debate is part of moment in which the moral pitch is shifting, in which the tides are turning in favour of the academic boycott of Israeli institutions (until Israel ends the occupation and abides by international law). I’m also troubled by what the organizing of this debate revealed – that the long-cherished, often-touted principle of academic freedom is already fenced in by collective fears of powerfully vested interests. So while my feeling about the state of the BDS movement, and of academic boycott in particular, has been boosted by this debate, it has also left me wondering about how we, as academics, limit our own freedom by bowing to powerful interests.


— Say Burgin

[1] See the April BRICUP newsletter, no. 75 for a longer report on the debate: