Interview: Professor Jonathan Rosenhead, architect of academic boycott

Last Tuesday, 343 UK academics signed a public letter published in The Guardian pledging to boycott academic institutions of Israel, a number which has since risen to at least 600, according to the movement’s website.  The move has been praised by Palestinian advocacy groups for sending a strong message, and denounced by pro-Israeli groups as unfair to academics and harmful to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  (Read our full coverage here.)

The Student spoke to Professor Jonathan Rosenhead of the London School of Economics, an architect of the boycott letter, about the movement.  Interview conducted by Ethan DeWitt on Thursday, 29 October.

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The Student: The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement has been operating for years now, and various academic boycotts have circulated in that time.  What was the impetus for this one?

Professor Jonathan Rosenhead: The boycott call was made from Palestinian civil society in 2004.  And people in Britain have been organising around that since that time with a good deal of success.  And more and more people are gradually being concerned about Israel’s behaviour and fundamental policies.  And what’s happened is that there’s been a gradual change of view within the academic communities.

So when I started getting involved this 10 years ago, to support a boycott was almost heretical.  And now it’s understood and accepted that, although not everybody agrees, that this is a position that is perfectly acceptable to hold.  That process has been changing.  And it’s getting towards the point where people are going to have to begin to explain why they don’t support boycott roles and why they have to.

Now what provoked this particular thing was last summer, when Israel attacked Gaza, and [thousands of] people were killed.  And we were—everyone we spoke to was shocked and said ‘what can we do’.  And we thought, just maybe we’d try and capture that, and see if people were willing not just to boycott connections with Israeli universities [which many were already doing privately], but [to see] if they might be willing to come out publicly and say ‘we are doing this’.  And we had an inquiry and found out that was the case, and then recruited the 343 people through a networking operation of people saying ‘well I’ll pass it to my friends and see if they will as well.’

We didn’t want to go public before we had a lot of signatures because the power of the pro-Israel lobby is formidable, and could have done things which would have frightened off other people from joining in.

What is the direct impact that an academic boycott of this sort has on the government policy?  Have you seen any direct examples of this sort of thing influencing government behaviour in Israel?

Oh no, everything in Israel has got worse and worse.

So then what is the exact intent of an academic boycott; how do you see it making an impact?

Professor Jonathan Rosenhead (Image: LSE)

Professor Jonathan Rosenhead (Image: LSE)

First of all, this is part of a global movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions.  It is not about the entirety, it is about one of its cutting edges, and it of course always makes publicity when it makes others step forward.  It’s quite clear that the impact is not in changing government policies in Israel, but in threatening Israel’s continuation of business as usual, so that the Israeli government and the Israeli president are both on record of saying that Israel has two strategic threats against it: one is the possibility that Iran may get nuclear weapons, and the other is the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement.  And they have set out specific ministers for this responsibility—cabinet committees—looking at how they can turn to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement.  Which is very difficult: it’s organic, grassroots, bottom up.  You know, they keep on trying to figure out where we get our money from.  We have no money!

So you’ve seen this take root in the Israeli government already?

Oh yes, absolutely.  They know that it’s a serious issue: whether they can continue this strategy of discrimination, exclusion of Palestinians, seizure of and building of settlements, and the attempt to create a greater Israel way beyond the boundaries of the ceasefire lines of 1948.

There are some strong critics of the boycott—the Israeli ambassador and the Union of Jewish Students have both issued statements denouncing it.  A specific criticism made is that if you are going to try to effect change, academia is the wrong place to do it—it’s disproportionate and it’s an indirect attack that unfairly brings in as victims people who aren’t really in the conversation.  How would you respond?

A few things.  First of all, that the Israeli ambassador and Union of Jewish Students say negative things about this is not that surprising.  In the words of Mandy Rice-Davis: “they would, wouldn’t they”.

Now on the question of whether it is actually the wrong target: first of all it is part of the general campaign against the whole of Israel.  You can’t say that any one particular part of it is inappropriate because it doesn’t target the whole.  So there are consumer boycotts and boycotts to do with Israel’s diamond trade, and boycotts to do with firms that trade in the broader territory and so on.

But specifically, the universities are part of this greater Israel, which has been operating for 50 years integrating the economies of the settlement with the outside.  There is no safe, clean area in Israel.  All of Israel’s universities are implicated in things to do with the occupying.  To take even the most apparently abstract case like philosophy—you’d think what would a philosopher do?  Well a philosopher would develop a public form of Israeli government policy for non-proportional retaliation, and that would become the doctrine of the Israeli military policy.

You have people in the [universities] who designed the armoured bulldozers, remote controlled, that demolish Palestinian homes.  You have have the university technology scientists who develop special apparatuses for detecting Palestinian tunnels which would otherwise be used to break the siege—you can go on and on.  Special courses available for and special dispensations for getting people who serve in the army.  It’s endless.

So just to narrow that down: the letter you published in The Guardian seems to have the general ambition of targeting the universities and not the individual academics.  You’ve mentioned what universities overall are doing to perpetuate the conflict, but have you been talking to individual academics or professors over there?  Do you think they’re independent of their own government, or do you see them as part of the problem too?

Everybody says that the Israeli academia is more liberal than the general public.  And I have no reason to doubt that.  That’s what they say certainly when foreign academics come and visit them—they’ll say [critical things about] these government policies.  But they don’t do anything publicly.  So it’s hard to know whether they’re just saying this because they know that’s what they want their visitors to hear, or whether they actually take their politics seriously.

When there have been opportunities for them to take their politics seriously, if they have serious policies, they’ve flumped it.  For example, it must have been about three or four years ago, there were I think four Israeli academics with no connections or promotions from the outside that circulated a motion—I can’t remember if it was a petition or a letter or something—to be found by Israeli academics.  And they individually addressed this thing to every single Israeli academic: 10,000 of them.

So they got all their names and their email addresses and so on, and it was asking them to adopt some fairly basic policies.  Like: we object to the problems that have been put in the way of Palestinian students from going to any other university than the one that’s nearby; we object to the restrictions on Palestinian academics from being able to go to conferences abroad.  You know, fairly mundane things about academic freedom which you’d think any academic [would support].  You don’t have to be a radical to support them.   But out of the 10,000 names, they got 470 signatures.  So that’s 4 percent.  It’s not a hotbed.  And maybe in context, those 407 are quite brave.  But it shows that if they are radicals, the political climate in Israel prevents them from actually saying anything about it.

We aim to to change that, by saying to the Israeli public at large: if they continue with their policies, there are consequences.  And Israel in the end will feel some of the disadvantages which Palestinians already have.

You’ve said in other statements that there seems to be an appetite for more—that now that you’ve done this public letter, more academics will feel safe to come out of the woodwork and support it.  Moving ahead, assuming the Israeli government doesn’t change their policies immediately, are you going limit your focus to increasing the volume of academics, or are there others things that you would consider boycotting? 

Well this is entirely to do with an academic boycott; it’s a commitment in our own sector where we work, where we have a conditional reason for talking to people.

Would you seek to get universities themselves involved?

Well that’s a long way ahead and it’s not clear that the universities or institutions will do that.  So it’s not particularly something we’ve thought about.

What we’re getting at the moment is a flood of signatures coming in.  So on the day we published, the number of signatures went from 340-odd to over 500, and they’re still coming in in droves.  I think we have to look and see how strong our support is.  But there certainly is potential, since these are people who have shown themselves publicly to be willing to join in particular campaigns which may develop further.  What we can do will depend on how many we have.

Image: Simone Baldini

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