North Africa, West Asia

Referendum on the academic boycott of Israel at SOAS

London's School of Oriental and African Studies is holding a referendum on whether to cut ties with universities in Israel—an experience which will be transformative in more ways than one.

Rana Baker
25 February 2015
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Wikimedia Commons/Colin Smith. Some rights reserved.

On 29 January, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) held its Union General Meeting (UGM), where everyone was welcome to participate. The most contentious item on the meeting agenda was the proposed referendum on the academic boycott of Israel, which is taking place between 23 and 27 February.

The referendum will be school-wide and will call on every member of the SOAS community, including academics, students, cleaners, and all other staff members to cast a vote on whether SOAS should suspend all institutional ties with Israel.

The question of academic freedom is crucial in a context where it is constantly exploited as a smokescreen behind which settler-colonialism is fed both discourse and weaponry. Israeli academia enjoys colonial privilege, not academic freedom.

The academic boycott of Israel, itself part of the growing BDS movement, targets this privilege based on a fundamental understanding of academic freedom as one that is inherently political. In the Israeli settler-colonial context, this privilege means that Israeli academic institutions directly enable and perpetuate colonial violence.

Israeli universities are inseparable from the Israeli state. They are knowledge-production apparatuses that are necessary for the violent development of its colonial army and accompanying imperial expansion of the state. 

Presently, SOAS has ties with the Hebrew University, which unapologetically joined the “war effort” last summer when the Israeli colonial machine murdered over 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza. In fact, in October 2014, the US weapons-producer Lockheed Martin announced that a cooperation agreement had been signed with Yissum, a technology firm that belongs to the Hebrew University.

These links cannot be framed as isolated incidents; like the Hebrew University, the Haifa-based Institute of Technology (Technion) has a strong affiliation with Israel’s arms industry and the development of bulldozers specifically designed to demolish Palestinian homes.

Even on the individual—but no less horrifying—level, we find academics like Dr Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University, who shamelessly but tellingly claimed, “The only thing that deters a suicide bomber is the knowledge that if he pulls the trigger or blows himself up, his sister will be raped.”

The university did not condemn Kedar’s despicable statement, and no Israeli feminist movements—should such movements be separable from colonial feminism in the first place—spoke up against it. It is nonsensical, therefore, to pontificate that freeing Israeli academic institutions from accountability fosters academic freedom.

The academic boycott referendum at SOAS is a first step in the direction of placing Israeli universities in the right context—as war labs. The lead-up to the referendum has highlighted the intersectional capacity of student activism and movement-building on campus. The SOAS Palestine Society has been campaigning for a YES vote for months now, mobilising students and academics, and holding various events and lectures on the subject.

The society has also been collaborating with other movements on campus, participating in debates on anti-Zionism and LGBTQ politics, and researching connections between corporate exploitation of working-class staff members such as the cleaners, and Israeli settler-colonialism.

The call for the academic boycott of Israel has subsequently received the formal endorsement of some of the biggest and most influential groups on campus, including the Justice for Cleaners campaign, the LGBTQIA+ Society, the Kashmir Solidarity Movement, Tamil Society, and the SOAS Student Union itself.

The YES campaign brought forth an important dynamic by politicising the classroom and directly involving academics in the campaign. Academics aligned with the Palestinian struggle for liberation have been outspoken in their support for the academic boycott of Israel, holding lectures in student spaces, such as the Junior Common Room (JCR) where students normally have lunch and hang out between classes, solidifying the link between academic discourse and political struggles on the ground.

Anthropology professors, for example, provided critiques of the discipline’s active involvement in colonial politics in the past, while urging their students to radicalise the discipline so that it aligns itself with anti-colonial movements. On the student level, the YES campaigners are disrupting the normal flow of classes by incorporating BDS into their class presentations and even lobbying for academic boycott at the beginning of their lectures.

The SOAS campaign for academic boycott, led and organised by students from various national, racial, and religious backgrounds, is undermining the boundary between academics and students on the one hand, and challenging the dominant neoliberal perception of the classroom as a politically “neutral” space on the other.

It is precisely these dynamics, together with the Palestine Society’s uncompromising stance on all political struggles, which have won the campaign the endorsement and public support of various groups and individuals at SOAS.

The referendum, however, is taking place in a highly critical environment, where many students are asking what a majority vote in favour of cutting ties with Israeli institutions would mean in practical terms.

A majority vote in favour of academic boycott will enable the Student Union, which already has a pro-BDS policy, to pressure the SOAS management into severing all ties with the Hebrew University. This partly means cancelling study-abroad programmes for Hebrew-language students until the University withdraws all forms of investment in settler-colonialism, and ends the silencing of critical, particularly Arab, voices on campus.

Students will still be able to learn Hebrew wherever they wish—Palestinian universities in the West Bank also provide Hebrew-language programmes. But SOAS should not be formally responsible, as it is currently, for programmes that materially support a war lab. The consequences of the vote have been made clear by the Palestine Society, which has been participating in debates and answering questions through flyers, stalls, rallies, and online platforms.

Whether the majority will vote in favour of boycotting Israeli institutions remains to be seen. The result of the referendum will be announced in the evening of Friday 27 February. On the day, the SOAS bar will remain open until 2:00am should students decide to celebrate the results.

Even more exciting than the vote itself, however, is the extent to which the campaign has been able to mobilise groups and individuals and to challenge and deconstruct the long-standing boundaries that have come to define academic spaces in Europe.

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