Tuesday, August 7, 2018

On BDS and saying no to nice things

In June, I received a very generous -- and very flattering -- invitation: 

"In the coming academic year we would like to organise in our department a mini-symposium to discuss new advances in Marx scholarship. We suggest that this mini-symposium includes three panellists: Gareth Stedman Jones, Shlomo Avineri and you. The symposium would also be an occasion to mark the opening of the Political Theory MA research programme in our department." 

Academia is a peer-to-peer prestige business. We professors don't bring in the big bucks -- though many of us do very well -- and, generally speaking, no one outside the academy knows our names. What drives us, for the most part, is desire for respect and recognition from our fellow academics. Knowing this does not make me immune. So being asked to be one of three panellists, alongside very distinguished professors thirty and forty years senior to me is exciting, to say the least.

The only problem? The invitation was extended by professors at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

I am a supporter of BDS, a campaign to boycott, divest from, and impose sanctions upon Israel (and businesses and institutions that cooperate with or profit from Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands). The goals of BDS are to compel Israel to: (1) end its occupation and colonization of Arab lands, (2) recognize the equal rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and (3) respect, protect, and promote the right of displaced Palestinians to return to land now controlled by Israel. 

Whether BDS can achieve all of these goals is uncertain, but it is clear that the Israeli government sees the BDS movement as a real threat to its policy of entrenching and extending its conception of Israel as an ethno-state. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu -- the ego-ideal of the Trump administration -- has banned members of 20 organizations that support BDS from entering Israel. A South African model was barred entry because she was visiting Israel on "a program sponsored by the prominent South African Israel-boycott organizations SACC (South African Council of Churches) and SAJP (South African Jews for a Free Palestine)." Advocates for Palestinian causes and critics of Israeli policy are detained and questioned aggressively by Israeli security services when they travel to Israel -- even when they are Israeli themselves. Ariel Gold, the co-director of Code Pink, was denied entry to Israel -- where she meant to pursue a program in Jewish studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem -- and had her student visa revoked because of her BDS advocacy. Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan proclaimed on Twitter that "Whoever acts for a boycott of Israel and comes here to cause damage, will not enter the country." Given these facts, I could not accept the invitation, no matter how exciting it was from a professional and intellectual point of view. My response follows:

Dear Professors,
Thank you for your invitation. I am honoured that you would wish to include me in a symposium on Marx’s writings, especially alongside such respected senior scholars as Professors Stedman Jones and Avineri.
Unfortunately, I cannot accept your invitation. This is not a decision I take lightly, but I am committed to honouring the call by our Palestinian colleagues not to engage in collaborative work with Israeli institutions implicated in the occupation. Taking this decision, I am mindful of Ariel Gold, an incoming student at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who was refused entry to Israel just on Sunday, and whose student visa was revoked, because of her BDS advocacy. I am mindful of my own status as an immigrant scholar in Canada, and of the fact that it is easier for me to participate in academic exchange in Israel than it is for our Palestinian colleagues. And I am mindful that Marx was sent into exile, unable to live and write in his homeland because the authorities considered his words too dangerous. I cannot afford myself such a wonderful opportunity when similar opportunities for academic exchange and conversation are so unjustly denied to both the people of Palestine and Jewish and Israeli advocates of BDS.
I regret that we won’t have a chance to meet and discuss Marx in this context, but I cling to the hope that a new political situation will arise, and that we will get another chance to work together.
Sincerely, Will Roberts

I want to make my response public because I know that I am not alone in turning down invitations to Israeli universities. I also know that most people do not know how many such invitations are refused. We know about organized attempts to declare institutional support for BDS, but we do not realize how many individual academics are postponing the opportunity for academic exchange and intellectual conversation in the hope that a new and better political situation will arise. Without knowing how many of us are waiting and hoping, the waiting can only be longer and the hoping more desperate. So I make my decision public, and I encourage others to do the same.