Taking a test in Boycott

Academic credits for soldiers mistreating Palestinians: a dilemma for the boycott movement

Thursday, 9 June, 2011 - 11:21
London, UK

The rate of conscription to the Israeli army has been falling steadily for years, with fewer Israeli citizens willing to dedicate years of their lives to military service. This has especially affected the reserves, which have been the backbone of the Israeli army in most of Israel’s wars, but have been in steady decline for some time. Reserve duty was a system developed to bolster the numbers of Israeli soldiers far beyond the limited number of regular troops, but in recent years only a small minority of eligible Israelis have still been doing reserve duty.

The Israeli government offers incentives to reservists, to try to keep the ranks from dwindling. For example, reservists get discounts when purchasing land and get preferable mortgages. The most recent in the series of these benefits is being promoted by Knesset Member Avi Dichter, former head of Israel’s secret police. He suggests that reserve duty should count as “social activity” for students, which will give them the equivalent of two academic points towards their degree.

The proposal will come before the Israeli Council for Higher Learning (CHL) for approval in less than a month and is very likely to pass. Only one Israeli academic institution – the Weizmann Institute – has expressed any misgivings about the proposal.

Granting reservists academic points will have significant implications for the growing academic boycott against Israel.

The academic boycott was one of the first acts of boycott organized in support of the Palestinian struggle. Starting in the UK, it quickly spread to Canada, South Africa and beyond. These actions stirred the academic community in Israel from slumber and brought to the fore difficult questions about how deeply Israeli academia is involved in Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.

Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) was founded in 2004 and set out clear guidelines for the academic boycott. The call was not intended as a tit-for-tat measure to match Israel’s restrictions on the work of Palestinian universities, nor as a form of punishment against Israel – but as a form of protest designed to bring Israel’s crimes to light in the international academic community and to force Israel to change its discriminatory policies. PACBI reasons that the effective and moral way to conduct an academic boycott is not to target individual Israeli academics, but to target Israeli academic institutions only. As such, this is not an infringement of the right of Israeli academics to express their opinions.

A common counter-argument raised against the academic boycott is that Israeli academia houses the opposition to Israel’s policies. Yet a report by the Alternative Information Center demonstrates the role of these institutions in contributing to the mistreatment of Palestinians. This includes training officers and developing weaponry used to commit war-crimes by the Israeli army (such as unmanned bulldozers designed to demolish houses), granting scholarships that discriminate against non-Jewish students, building campuses on occupied Palestinian land (Ariel College, Hebrew University) and preventing protest by Palestinian students. One notable exception is the Open University in Israel, which does not participate in any of those activities.

When the boycott campaign against apartheid in South Africa was organized, the targeting of academia was much more comprehensive. Degrees from South African universities were not recognized by universities around the world. But since the boycott of South Africa served as an inspiration for the Palestinian call for boycott, this raises a dilemma. If degrees awarded by Israeli institutions are not recognized, it will prevent Israeli academics from using their degrees to secure opportunities for continued studies or professional jobs abroad, and will close a gap through which educated Israelis who are fed-up with Israel’s economic policies, military culture or political situation can find a way out.

This gap is important for Israeli academic dissenters and for Palestinian students in Israeli universities. It gives Israeli academics the choice to dissociate themselves from their institutions and speak out as individuals against the atrocities committed by Israel, thus making the boycott more effective. However, the new proposal to grant free academic credit to reservists threatens this option.

Preferential treatment for reservists seems like yet another discriminatory policy in Israeli universities, for Palestinians rarely serve in the army and will thus not qualify for the extra credit. Yet it is much more than that – it could be a game changer for the boycott campaign.

The vast majority of Israeli universities are ready to grant free academic credit to soldiers in the Israeli army for “social activity,” demonstrating how militarized Israel’s society has become. Israeli soldiers would effectively be rewarded for preventing the freedom of movement for Palestinians, for demolishing houses in the West Bank, for helping to colonize the West Bank and for attacking defenceless civilians.

Although the academic boycott movement calls for a boycott of Israeli institutions, but does not advocate non-recognition of degrees (and for full disclosure: as a graduate of Tel Aviv University I would also like my degree to be respected by universities internationally), the adoption of the proposal for granting free credit could present it with a significant new challenge. How can respectable universities around the world take Israeli universities seriously, when academic credit is awarded for serving in an occupying army?

Shir Hever is an Israeli economist and commentator who researches the economic aspects of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

This article may be reproduced on condition that JNews is cited as its source.

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