In Defense of Boycotting Israeli Universities

Not only do Israel’s universities help to develop weapons used against Palestinians, they also legitimize the actions of a nation that has become an international pariah. They deserve to be boycotted.

Pro-Palestinian activists hold paintings of watermelons during a rally to mark Nakba Day at Tel Aviv University on May 15, 2024 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Amir Levy / Getty Images)

Israel has killed thirty-six thousand people in Gaza, including fifteen thousand children, and injured eighty thousand. Ten thousand Palestinians are currently missing. Despite this, support for the war remains strong among the Israeli public, two-thirds of which approve of the ongoing conflict; a majority would like the government to extend the fight to Hezbollah in the north of the country, where exchanges between belligerents have forced over sixty thousand Israelis to evacuate.

On the border with Gaza, far-right vigilantes have organized to prevent aid from reaching over two million Palestinians, who the World Health Organization has said are at risk of famine. The key focus of the mainstream antigovernment protests that have taken place across Israel has been the Benjamin Netanyahu administration’s failure to bring back the hostages taken by Hamas on October 7. These objections, insofar as they can be treated as such, do not come anywhere near to reflections on the causes on the ongoing war, or an admission of guilt for the genocide.

Within this context, Boycott Theory and the Struggle for Palestine: Universities, Intellectualism and Liberation, a recently published book by the activist-academic Nick Riemer, could not be more timely. Founded on a solid historical analysis of the specifics of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, Riemer’s book makes a convincing case that, instead of treating Israeli universities as neutral centers of learning, scholars must answer the call from Palestinian civil society to boycott them. Boycott Theory presents the common arguments against the boycott and offers compelling rebuttals. The book arms the reader with the tools not only to advocate for the boycott against its conservative and liberal critics, but for Palestinian liberation.

The arguments against boycotting Israeli universities all stem, Riemer argues, from a one-sided belief in the importance of educational institutions that is rarely applied to Palestinians. Ignored by these arguments is the extent to which Israeli universities undermine Palestinian education. Riemer begins his study by spelling out the intentional crippling or dismantling of all forms of Palestinian education. In the West Bank, the lives and rights of teachers, administrators, and students are disrupted by checkpoints that transform their daily routines into obstacle courses.

It is, Riemer tells us, common for a student to be held at these checkpoints for so long that they miss the classes or exams for which they have prepared. Teachers often must deal with authorities arbitrarily cutting off electricity. Palestinian professors are frequently denied visas to travel for research or to attend conferences. Scholars from outside of Israel-Palestine are denied the right to visit. Schools themselves are routinely invaded by the Israel Defense Forces, the police, and the Palestinian Authority. Austerity, a consequence of occupation, means that school and university buildings often fall into disrepair. The litany of abuses of the right to education is seemingly endless.

“Palestinian schools and universities provide a critical link between education and emancipation”: this, according to Riemer, is the chief reason that Israel is so keen to suppress them. These institutions could potentially offer a challenge to a colonial power committed to retelling the history of its own foundation. But in 2011, Israel’s Knesset passed a law that gave the country’s finance minister the power to withhold funding from institutions that question the myth of Israel’s foundation as a democratic state. Effectively, this has meant outlawing all efforts to treat the establishment of Israel in 1948 as an act of mass ethnic cleansing, as well as the criminalization of Nakba Day (May 15), on which Palestinians mourn their dead and displaced.

Anti-Palestinianism is not an accidental feature of Israeli education policy, but it’s “central plank.” Not only are campuses routinely raided and teachers and students held by the military, but the army often positions shooting ranges next to campuses. Israeli universities are, Riemer contends, part of a heavily militarized state apparatus — indeed, their research contributes directly to the invention of weapons and military tactics.

A common criticism of boycotting Israeli institutions is that it precludes a “dialogue” that somehow would resolve these inequities and injustices. But there is something deeply distasteful about this idea, Riemer argues. Such focus on dialogue creates a politics that conceives of its ultimate goal as the promotion of mutual understanding, rather than ending oppression.

Critics of the cultural boycott often say, “Why single out Israel?” This question shifts attention away from Israel’s actions, which rightly call for censure. The boycott of Israel is not simply a moral position, but the response to an organized movement within Palestine that sees such efforts as part and parcel of a broader struggle for liberation. “Palestinians themselves are directly asking the world for solidarity,” Reimer writes; the “energetic and growing campaign has emerged in response” to these calls.

In the closing sections of Riemer’s book, he writes that universities around the world are being increasingly characterized by

norms of physical and ideological enclosure supported by authoritarian and repressive practices that are turning them more and more into little Israels. University authorities, and the financial and commercial interests they largely serve, are typically either overt supporters of Israeli Zionism or completely silent in the face of Israeli apartheid.

These words, written before the wave of encampments across the United States, ring truer than ever.

The effect of this censorship is to constrain not only free speech, but to depoliticize universities. This is especially harmful because higher education remains, despite its neoliberal drift, one of the few institutions in society that offers a challenge to the dominant views of the Right. The central insight of Boycott Theory is that it is crucial to not lose sight of the political function of education. It can serve as a means of legitimizing a regime bent on ethnic cleansing, as is the case in Israel, or as a space in which these forms of oppression can be critiqued, as would be the case in Palestine were its educational institutions allowed to function freely. Boycotting remains the most effective way to make clear this contradiction in which Israeli freedom is predicated on the suppression of Palestinian freedom.