The double boycott challenge

How do I, as president of TAU, maneuver through calls to boycott my university and others, as part of the delegitimization campaign against Israel, on the one hand, and demands from donors to expell our the students and faculty who support it, on the other?

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As the new president of Tel Aviv University, the country’s largest and most comprehensive institution of higher education, I find myself caught in an agonizing double bind. On the one hand, my university and other Israeli academic institutions are the subject of an odious boycott campaign. This effort to instill an academic boycott is part of a much wider campaign that seeks to delegitimize Israel – and ultimately eliminate it – by unfairly casting it as the new racist South Africa. Regrettably, some of the campaign’s advocates include a handful of the university’s own faculty and students. In fact, one of the most vocal leaders of the campaign is a current post-graduate student.

On the other hand, the university is subjected to vehement calls for another kind of boycott – a financial one – by loyal and long-term donors. This latter campaign is designed by well-intended friends of Israel who seek to coerce us, the Tel Aviv University leadership, into acting against the very small minority of our faculty and student body that is critical of Israel and government policies. They demand that we fire dissident faculty and expel politically wayward students.

It is between these two forces that I operate.

Clearly the groups that back the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) effort are fundamentally geared toward negating the Jewish state’s very right to exist. Though there may be Israeli and Jewish academics who sincerely believe that their BDS efforts serve to change government policies they disagree with, the ultimate consequences of their actions run much deeper. They are, wittingly or unwittingly, lending their hand to a cynical campaign.

The truth is that those who seek to target research universities clearly understand their strategic importance to Israel and its social and economic well-being. The universities generate the country’s most important and only natural resource: human capital. Without
outstanding universities and the graduates and ideas they produce, we would not be the “start-up nation” we are all so justifiably proud of. Without dynamic faculties of humanities, arts and social sciences, we would be a parochial society, rather than a vibrant and culturally pluralistic one.

And, most important, without the academic freedom to develop our educational excellence – the same excellence that lies at the core of our prosperity – TAU and the other leading research centers here would wither. Academic freedom allows TAU’s 1,000 faculty members and 26,000 students, who represent all faiths, ethnicities and nationalities, to exchange ideas freely and openly. Academic freedom ensures that the
nation’s scientists and scholars win recognition on the basis of merit and not affiliation. This freedom is unique in the Middle East and has enabled, in such a short period of time, a cluster of outstanding world-class institutions to develop.

The boycott campaign must, for this reason, be opposed on a single universal principle alone – the right to academic freedom.

IT IS paradoxical that the faculty members who clamor for an academic boycott are the beneficiaries of that very right. It is for many Israelis and Diaspora Jews more than a paradox – it is infuriating. I can empathize with this anger. I cannot stress enough that these faculty members neither speak for nor represent the university. Still, many people expect, and a few insist, that my university and its management punish these faculty members and students by expelling them.

To do so, however, will subvert the very same principle by which we oppose the boycott and will undermine our best efforts to thwart it. If we impose severe sanctions against dissident faculty and students, we will play into the hands of those who lead the boycott drive by compromising on our own core value of academic freedom.

Moreover, if donors decide to withhold funding from TAU because of the views of a few faculty members or students, they will inadvertently strengthen the boycotters’ position by politicizing and destabilizing our universities. I believe that those who love and believe in Israel should do the exact opposite – they should increase their support for the universities. They should make a strong public statement against boycotts of any kind by providing greater, not fewer, resources for Israel’s high-achieving academic community, and by strengthening, not weakening, the universities’ national contribution.

It helps to think of education as a tree. In our case, investment in higher education in the early years of the state’s existence yielded incredible fruits for the people of Israel and, indeed, for the world – including medical discoveries and hi-tech innovations. I hope that current and future supporters will invest more in the wonderful tree that is the Israeli research enterprise. The double bind we face is that one group exhorts felling this tree to hurt Israel through boycott and exclusion, while another would stop watering the tree by
withdrawing funding and support.

Either will hurt my university and my country.

The writer, a professor of theoretical chemistry, is president of Tel Aviv University and the former chairman of the Israel Science Foundation.