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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2013 > August 2013 > Academic Democracy and the Boycott of Israel: A Question of Ethics

Academic Democracy and the Boycott of Israel: A Question of Ethics

Thursday 1 August 2013, by Bipasha Sultana

Among the series of calls for academic boycott that have taken place in the past few years as a consequence to one of the most volatile geopolitical conflicts at present – Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories – one of the most recent hits very close to home. Our very own McGill University has announced its intention to award the renowned American scholar and philosopher Judith Butler an honorary doctorate this summer.

For Butler fans and enthusiasts, the impending accolade was welcomed as well deserved by someone who has made groundbreaking contributions to gender and sexuality studies. For others, however, – namely, campus groups such as Hillel McGill and McGill Students for Israel – the announcement was met with outrage and a call to overturn the decision, on the grounds that Butler holds a “pro-terror” stance in defense of groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

With the same degree of resentment, there exists a minority camp of Butler opponents who reject the accolade not on the basis of her political affiliations, but rather, the quality (or lack thereof) of her work. As former McGill graduate Lauryn Oates quips on a piece in Huffington Post, “Butler’s greatest contribution as an academic is writing so bad, it even made some Foucault devotees cringe, winning first place in The Bad Writing Contest of 1998”.

According to McGill, honorary degrees are afforded to recipients who embody the university’s “highest aspirations and ideals” and will thus “serve as an inspiration and role model to [McGill] students, graduates and our community as a whole”.

As the debates surrounding the topic of academic boycotting invariably involve either affirming or contesting the value of a scholar’s academic input, it goes without saying that the political views and affiliations of the scholar in question are equally weighed into the equation. As such, the question that is perhaps central upon pondering on the validity of academic boycotts is the following: how relevant are personal, political views when one is being measured according to his/her scholarly input?

In other words, does a renowned and influential scholar’s contribution to academia become entirely dismissed and stripped of worthiness because of his/her political views? Granted, as a political philosopher, a bulk of Butler’s body of works are founded on (or, we can reasonably argue, have resulted in) her political identifications, of which she has been vocal about, particularly in her criticism of the state of Israel.

For those who express the desire to implement a boycott of an academic figure or institution, political affiliation almost always matters. Those who are most outraged by McGill’s decision are not really those who think her scholarship to be mediocre at best. They are, rather, those who believe her political stance to be abhorrent and unethical and are accordingly judging the university’s decision as being one that is unethical.

The question of ethicality concerning academic boycotting, moreover, becomes twofold. While student-body groups such as Hillel McGill and McGill Students for Israel challenge the ethicality of their university’s harboring of an individual with ostensibly offensive views, how might they respond to a situation in which the roles were reversed? One in which an academic figure willfully boycotted an institution or event on the basis of the latter’s questionable ethical affiliations? The most recent instance of this consists of Stephen Hawking’s contentious decision to back away from a conference hosted by president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem this June.

Make Tomorrow Happen is an annual conference event that gathers a number of famous world figures, including celebrities, politicians and thinkers such as Hawking. It is premised on a three-day discussion panel that addresses issues concerning the future of a global, geopolitical scale, by “[engaging] the central issues that will influence the face of our future: geopolitics, economics, society, environment, culture, identity, education, new media and more.

This year’s conference was the fifth and celebrated Peres’ 90th birthday and gathered a number of famous world figures, including celebrities, politicians and thinkers such as Hawking.

It is worth noting that what could have likely motivated Hawing’s decision is the conference’s partnership with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which effectively makes his boycott an academic one but also one that is an affront to the State of Israel.

Hawking’s boycott of the conference, moreover, is part of a wave of boycotts from various pedagogical groups. This movement is primarily fuelled by Boycotts Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), an organization that is increasingly gaining worldwide support as it aims to overturn Israel’s policies and treatment of Palestinians, by encouraging academic, consumer and cultural boycotts against the State.

Judith Butler is a vocal and prominent supporter of the BDS movement.

In response to Hawking’s announcement, Israel Maimon, chairman of the presidential conference, echoed the sentiment of many who oppose the ambitions of the BDS and the general notion of academic boycott: “The use of an academic boycott against Israel is outrageous and improper, particularly for those to whom the spirit of liberty is the basis of the human and academic mission. Israel is a democracy in which everyone can express their opinion, whatever it may be. A boycott decision is incompatible with open democratic discourse."

In his statement, Maimon addresses the murky question of ethicality that is at the crux of such politically-motivated boycotts. Those who wish to implement boycotts against prominent institutions do so with the aim of exposing the institutions’ involvement in questionable decisions. The very notion of boycotting involves the systematic exclusion and isolation of the boycotted object/service/individual etc. for the purpose of maiming it of its power by simultaneously recognizing this very power.

The support for academic boycotting doesn’t come without its caveats, as many neglect the simple truth that academic institutions can exist independently of their respective governments. It is this independence and liberty of thought that defines the spirit of academia. To state the obvious, scholarship and academic research has always been driven by the need to criticize and improve the status quo and if the platform to encourage this is compromised – especially in a state that is as fraught with civil and global tension as Israel is – the effects can be problematic.

Ultimately, for BDS and its supporters, Israel is a force that must be reckoned with and its academic realm is a crucial lifeline to its strength as a state.

Israel will not cease to exist as an independent state. Cutting intellectual, commercial and cultural support with the aim of isolating the nation not only undermines this fact, but can prove to be unfair to a segment of the Israeli population that is open to listen and negotiate with their nation’s contrarians. The justice for and well-being of the Palestinian people should not be achieved at the stake of the well-being of the Israeli people and academic growth is integral to any people’s well-being.

The necessity for open dialogue is perhaps most saliently expressed by British fiction author Ian McEwan who was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for Literature in 2011 and who responded to his critics by claiming the following: “If I only went to countries that I approve of, I probably would never get out of bed…It’s not great if everyone stops talking.