The apartheid logic of settlement boycotts

The row over a West Bank university reveals that it is not only settlers who believe in separating Palestinians from Jews.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics World

The year 1967 has been referred to so many times in relation to the Israel-Palestine peace process it has become a kind of mantra. Obama invoked it again last week in his State Department address when he called for Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders, the so-called Green Line.

Proponents of a two-state solution believe that the only way to achieve peace in the region is by permanently dividing Palestinians and Israelis along clearly-demarcated lines. Critics of the two-state solution tend to agree, only they also tend to believe that the 1967 line is not satisfactory from the point of view of security or historical interests. And so Jewish settlements to the east of the Green Line are seen as profound obstacles to peace and quiet, or as a profound buffer ensuring Israel’s security and survival, depending on who you ask.

A favoured strategy by those who see settlements as the No.1 obstacle to peace in the Middle East and to justice for the Palestinians is the imposition of boycotts and sanctions. For such boycott-proponents, Israeli settlements should be shamed, isolated and put under economic and social pressure for grabbing land that is not theirs according to international laws. And it’s not just ‘the international community’ and Palestine solidarity activists who refuse to engage with settlers but some Israelis, too.

Israeli boycotts are sometimes individual in nature. So, for instance, there are those who refuse to buy produce manufactured in the settlements. Or, to take another example, there are the former combatants who refuse to perform their reserve duties in the Occupied Territories. And then there are organised, collective cultural and academic boycotts that share much in common with anti-Israel boycott campaigns abroad.

The West Bank settlement of Ariel, established in 1978 and today the fourth largest Jewish city in the West Bank with a population of 20,000, has been subjected to two high-profile Israeli boycotts recently. Last summer, 60 of Israel’s most prominent actors, writers and directors refused to take part in a programme of performances to mark the opening of a £6.4million cultural centre in Ariel. This inspired a group of Israeli academics to draw up a petition earlier this year stating their refusal to take part in any kind of academic activity taking place at the Ariel University Centre of Samaria (AUC), which has around 12,000 students and some 400 faculty members. The petition has attracted just over 200 signatories from a range of Israeli academic institutions. Though the petition does not mention the word ‘boycott’, to all intents and purposes that’s what it is.

A view from the AUC campus – the buildings under construction are the new student residences

Talking to petition organiser Nir Gov, of the Weizmann Institute’s Department of Chemical Physics, and to Yigal Cohen-Orgad, a former Israeli finance minister and currently the chancellor of AUC, it became clear that these two very different people have at least one thing in common: a belief that territorial separation along ethnic lines, dividing Jews and Arabs, is the key to the region’s future.

Where Cohen-Orgad leads an institution that excludes Palestinians and contributes to the expansion of Israeli-ruled territory, Nir believes Israelis would do better establishing academic institutions for Israelis inside the Green Line and let Palestinians develop their own state and universities.

I met Cohen-Orgad in his office at the centre of Ariel’s sprawling campus – a multi-storey student residence complex is currently under construction here. Every bit the politician, his answers to my questions were slow, considered and carefully constructed. He gave me a breakdown of the student body: 85 per cent come ‘from the west of the Green Line and only 15 per cent come from Judea and Samaria’. (When I referred to Judea and Samaria as the West Bank, Cohen-Orgad objected: ‘That’s what you call it.’) He explained that AUC students come from all over Israel and represent all ranks of society, ‘non-religious, religious, Jews, Arabs, new immigrants, veterans… It’s a melting pot.’

But of course, as Gov pointed out when I met him the following day on the other side of the Green Line, at the Weizmann Institute in the central Israeli city of Rehovot, besides accepting students from surrounding Jewish settlements, AUC has no actual local connections. ‘The Palestinian population is invisible to the people of Ariel’, said Gov.

Indeed, despite its contentious location deep inside the West Bank, Ariel feels like a sleepy suburb, with neatly trimmed lawns, recycling stations, rows of terraced houses and a set of tennis courts. There is a mix of religious and secular residents and the street signs read like a Zionist dictionary, with names like Sheshet Hayamim (Six Day War), Hazionut (Zionism) and Tzahal (the Israel Defense Forces). There is little to no interaction between the Israelis living, studying and working in Ariel and the Palestinians surrounding them. While AUC, like all other Israeli academic institutions, admits Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, Palestinian residents of the West Bank are not allowed into Ariel except with permission to do day labour, for instance in construction.

AUC calls itself a Zionist institution. Every student is required to take one course per term on some aspect of Judaism, Jewish heritage or ‘Land of Israel studies’. Every classroom, laboratory and auditorium has an Israeli flag. And for Gov, AUC, which was first established in 1982, is primarily a political project. ‘Building a campus for Israelis in Ariel, travelling to the occupied territories to study – it’s a political move… Ariel itself was built where it is for the purpose of ensuring that Israel forever occupies this land. It has a political motive, and has nothing to do with furthering science.’

Yigal Cohen-Orgad, chancellor of
the Ariel University Centre
of Samaria

At Ariel, I was told the opposite. The representatives I spoke to insisted that their primary objective is to further academic research and innovation, to help counteract the shortage of student and teaching positions in Israel. I was told Ariel’s application to receive permanent university status (the decision will be taken next year) has nothing to do with the Israel-Palestine conflict. Cohen-Orgad said Israel’s need for ‘at least two more universities’ is the prime concern. In fact, though he proudly posed for a photograph in front of the Israeli flag and a portrait of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, he evaded any questions to do with the ideology of Ariel and AUC’s staff.

When I asked what attracts academics to work at AUC, Cohen-Orgad joked ‘A – they are nuts’. He then spoke about the high proportion of full-time positions allowing faculty members to combine teaching and research. Aren’t any of them motivated by ideology? ‘There is a spirit of a pioneering project here’, Cohen-Orgad eventually allowed. ‘The faculty feel that they are part of creating something new… Someone who strongly opposes settlements would not come here, though we have had some exceptions! Most are neutral or positive [towards settlements], but most also tend gradually to start identifying with the location.’ Cohen-Orgad also emphasised that AUC has 500 to 600 Arab students ‘from all over Israel’.

Cohen-Orgad’s surprising attachment to political correctness gave way slightly when I asked what he makes of Israeli academics’ refusal to acknowledge or engage with AUC. ‘There is a saying: “The dog barks, the caravan moves on.” That’s the un-PC answer’, he said chuckling. He insisted that boycott campaigns have not affected AUC’s development. ‘From time to time, there have been some inconveniences. In most cases it starts with those Israelis or Jews who strongly oppose settlements. Then they find some Arab comrades and then non-Jewish ones.’

Gov, on his part, insisted that his petition is directed at Israeli academics and that he and his colleagues have not tried to solicit a public declaration of support from abroad, though several organisations and individuals have voiced support on a personal basis and by leaving messages on the petition website. ‘We want to increase our ranks here in Israel’, said Gov. He added, however, that ‘we’ve hit a glass ceiling… For every signatory there are five more who want to sign but are afraid to do so. They think they might lose a grant or be denied promotion, for instance.’

Yet there are also those who believe academic boycotts are not the way forward, that it politicises science and education, that it places a burden on academics to take responsibility for a state’s action, that it stifles debate and the free flow of ideas.

Gov wants to have the right, as an individual academic, to refuse collaboration with settlement institutions. Yet going down this route would also mean promoting individual academics’ right to refuse to engage with each other on the basis of one another’s political allegiances in general. In this sense, politics takes precedence over the pursuit of knowledge.

While the Israeli academics opposing AUC see the territory it is built on as illegitimate because it is to the east of the Green Line, there are those who see the entire state of Israel as occupied land. So does that justify boycotts of Israeli academia as a whole? Of course, in the ‘international community’, as well as in the Arab world, there are many who believe so. Gov, however, opposes blanket boycotts of Israel, insisting that ‘the Israeli academic community is large and vibrant and we couldn’t have done all the beautiful science we do here without international collaborations and support’. But extending his arguments for a refusal to engage with Ariel to other parts of the world with questionable politics would put an end to academic exchanges.

In principle, Cohen-Orgad is right to criticise those who ‘substitute political reasoning and debate for boycotts’. This, he told me, ‘is an antithesis to the principle of the development of science that is based on the legitimacy of a plurality, and exchange of, ideas.’ But in practice, of course, Cohen-Orgad is no proponent of the free flow of ideas and academic exchanges, either, or he would see to it that AUC’s admissions policy was not guided by nationality.

Gov insists that his petition has nothing to do with the quality of research at AUC and that there is, indeed, a need for more universities in Israel. ‘So let’s dismantle it and re-build it twice as big inside Israel’, he told me. But this would do nothing to counteract the divisions that exist today between Israelis and Palestinians. It seems academics who support educational access for all would do better to campaign for admission to universities in Israel and the Palestinian territories to be based on merit rather than nationality.

The Green Line, a border that was pencilled on a map by the late Israeli politician Moshe Dayan in 1948, has acquired a talismanic status in some sections of Israeli society. Withdrawing to the pre-1967 borders is seen as some kind of magic bullet to peace. But it is ironic that those who draw comparisons between Israel’s policies in the occupied territories and the Apartheid era are also those who insist on separating Israelis and Arabs along ethnic lines that were drawn up by an eyepatch-adorned general 63 years ago.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today