An open letter to supporters of the anti-Israel academic boycott.An open letter to supporters of the anti-Israel academic boycott

I am not surprised that you – as someone who cares deeply about the Palestinians – supports the boycott of Israeli academics and scientists. I know you feel strongly that Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians are wrong and you want them changed. l appreciate the visceral appeal of a boycott as way to create international pressure on Israel to support policy changes that would be more favorable to Palestinian dignity, needs, and interests.

There are, however, three reasons why believe this boycott is counter to the long-term interests of the Palestinians, and why I believe that you, who cares deeply about Palestinian needs, should look beyond the short-term appeal of the boycott and recognize that, in the long-run, it is a futile, and largely counter-productive effort. It hurts Palestinians more than it helps them.

Here’s why:

(1). The academic boycott is misdirected within Israel. The boycott targets the wrong subset of Israels, namely those who are already most likely to support Palestinian-favorable policies, and it miss entirely those Israelis (the extreme religious right) who are the major opponents to compromise or accommodation of Palestinian interests. The intellectuals, scientists, and academics in Israel are among the strongest supporters of policies to accommodate Palestinian goals.

(2). The boycott is inconsistent in targetting Israel. How do you justify targeting Israeli scientists for boycott while still promoting and and accepting engagement with scientists from other countries whose policies you surely also disagree with.

Consider Pakistan which supports legalized and institutionalized rape of women, treating victims of sexual abuse as if they, themselves, were the criminals. Their treatment of Mukhtar Mai, who was gang raped by orders of her village tribal council, and the more recent suppression and detention of Dr. Shazia Khalid following her rape, are outrageous.

Why aren’t you directing the same rage and boycott at Pakistan that you do towards Israel? Why don’t you advocate cutting off all scientific and commercial ties with Pakistan until it formally revokes its hudood laws which deny raped woman substantial legal rights?

How about Saudia Arabia which denies women and all citizens basic democratic and civil rights? Why are you not boycotting Chinese scientists? Their country has occupied Tibet for decades, under a repressive regime that eliminates Tibetan culture and language, with a process of replacing local inhabitants with settlers of Chinese ethnicity.

Why are you not as outraged by this as you are by the Israel-Palestinian situation? The anti-Israeli boycott is suspect, in the eyes of many people around the world, including those who support Palestinian aspirations, because it is selective in targeting Israel and ignores numerous other countries which would seem – under the logic of this boycott – to be worthy of similar treatment.

The academics in France and England and elsewhere who call for boycotts of Israeli do so with little or no cost to themselves or their own academic careers. It would be easier to respect the consistency and depth of their commitment to this issue if, instead of only boycotting Israelis, they also boycotted all American scientists, American journals, and American conferences on the grounds that the US continues to be the major international supporter of Israel. But such a more generalized boycott would require significant professional sacrifices on the part of the boycotters and so they conveniently pass on generalizing their boycott of Israel to the United States.

(3). The boycott hurts Palestinians more than Israelis. The changes you seek in Israeli policy towards Palestinians might occur for many reasons. One approach might be to make the Israeli position in the world so untenable and uncomfortable (through boycotts and such) that, in desperation, the Israelis cave in to this international pressure and make radical changes to their policies towards Palestinians. It’s possible.

Another potential factor in promoting the changes you seek – one often noted by Israelis themselves – is Israel’s feeling of security and it ability to protect its citizens from attacks. But there is also a third factor: the degree to which Israelis care about the needs of Palestinians and are disturbed by the difficulties they face under the current situation. The problem here is that people care about “persons” not “peoples.”

By this I mean, that most people are far more able and willing to care about individuals whom they know, are in contact with, and respect on an individual basis, as compared to more abstract concerns for a distal group of people who are physically, emotionally or geographically removed. Decades of psychological research dating back to the 1960s, demonstrate that our capacity for empathy is directly related to the degree to which we have personal contact with, and identify with, people as individuals.

The work of Schacter, Milgram and others showed that the more removed the contact, the more anonymous the relations, the less likely we are to be motivated to help other people (especially if it involves some cost or risk) and the more likely we are to be willing to accept a role in causing, or accepting, pain in others. Personal contact and identification can and does raise empathy and mitigate our tolerance for causing discomfort.

Direct personal relationships also alter our willingness to accommodate the rights of others. For example, you might ask what is one of the major factors that influences whether or not people are willing to support civil and legal rights for homosexuals? Age and religion certainly are factors. But just as important, if not more so, is whether or not you know an single individual, on a personal basis, who is gay.

Why is this relevant to the boycott? The boycott directly and indirectly minimizes the potential for Israelis to work with, interact with, and get to know Palestinians. In this way it brings Israelis and Palestinians further apart, turning Palestinian concerns, rights, and issues into abstractions rather than the concrete realities that Israeli know and can empathize with on a personal basis. The anti-Israeli boycott is ultimately counterproductive to cooperative programs which, step by step, create and expand Israeli individuals empathy and interests in individual Palestinians, and ultimately with the community of Palestinians.

Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al Quds University in east Jerusalem, and Menachem Magidor, president of Hebrew University in west Jerusalem, recently made a joint declaration. They stated that,”Our position is based upon the belief that it is through cooperation based on mutual respect, rather than boycotts or discrimination, that our common goals can be achieved ..Our disaffection with, and condemnation of, acts of academic boycotts is predicated on the principles of academic freedom, human rights and equality between nations and among individuals.

Nussebieh followed up on this statement by explaining that, for him personally, “The reason I don’t believe the boycott is the way to go is that I believe peace must be built on the bridge between two civil societies…While some people believed that one way to deal with Israelis was “to bash them on their heads,” Nusseibeh said, “the other way is to reach to their hearts, and it’s the reaching out that’s important.”

There are, of course, many Palestinians (including faculty and students at Al Quds) and other supporters of Palestinian rights from around the world who disagree with Nussebeih and who support the boycott.

I hope, however, that you will look beyond the visceral appeal and emotional satisfaction of an anti-Israeli boycott, and think about how it does, or does not, advance Palestinian interests in the long run. Perhaps, in doing so, you might come to see some wisdom in Nusseibeh’s position and words.

Last month I returned from Israel, and from visiting at Al Quds Medical School in the West Bank, with commitments from both Israelis and Palestinians to work with together, and with us, to develop new joint Israeli-Palestinian cooperative biomedical research programs.

In these planned studies, Palestinian neurologists will work researchers from Rutgers University-Newark and Stanford University, along with Israeli doctors and scientist from Haifa University and Hebrew University, to better understand Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders among both communities. In addition, Al Quds has agreed to co-host, jointly with Hebrew University, a second conference on neurological disorders in 2007 (similar to a meeting we held there last month on Parkinson’s disease), focused on Alzheimer’s disease. All participants will be bussed back and forth between sessions at Hebrew University and the Al Quds Medical school.

Although such actions are not universally popular among Palestinians, I hope you will reconsider your support of the anti-Israeli boycott, turn away from the easy temptation to isolate Israeli, and instead join us in working for expanded, not fewer, opportunities for cooperation and links between Palestinians, Israelis, and their scientific and academic colleagues from around the world.


Dr. Mark A. Gluck