SAN FRANCISCO — The 5,000-member American Studies Association voted last December to join the academic boycott of Israel, the third scholarly group in the United States to do so in 2013. Its decision was both reasonable and commendable.
The call for boycott, divestment and sanctions — or BDS — against Israel was first issued in 2005 by more than 170 Palestinian non-governmental organizations, representing all facets of Palestinian society.
One year before, the International Court of Justice had found the parts of Israel’s separation wall built on Palestinian soil to be illegal, and called for its destruction and payment of restitution to Palestinians harmed by its construction. Neither Israel nor any other state abided by the ICJ’s ruling, forcing Palestinians to request international solidarity in support of their legal rights.
Israel’s separation wall and other policies toward Palestinians have prompted repeated comparisons to South African apartheid.
Israel does not precisely replicate South African practices, but nonetheless systematically discriminates in favor of Jews and against Palestinians — by granting automatic citizenship to Jews from anywhere in the world while denying return to expelled Palestinians who still possess the keys to their homes; by more than 50 laws designed to privilege Jews over non-Jews within Israel itself; and by maintaining separate roads, communities and legal systems for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank.
Israel has subjected Palestinians to torture, assassinations, lengthy detentions without trial, home demolitions, banishments, curfews, school closures, restrictions on freedom of movement and other violations of human rights.
These offenses have been amply documented by respected human rights groups such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, not to mention our own State Department.
Some prominent South Africans, including African National Congress chairman Baleka Mbete, deem Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories “far worse” than their own version of apartheid.
The international community imposed a comprehensive boycott on South Africa that spared neither business people, athletes nor authors. The academic boycott of Israel, facing an evidently more brutal system of oppression, solely targets Israeli academic institutions. Individual Israeli academics remain free to attend conferences, visit universities abroad and publish articles without restriction.
Israeli institutions of higher education are targeted for their complicity in violations of Palestinian rights.
Hebrew University, for example, operates in part on land illegally confiscated from Palestinians after 1967, while the faculty club of Tel Aviv University is housed in the former home of the mayor of Sheikh Muwannis, a Palestinian village that was ethnically cleansed by Israeli forces in 1948.
Israeli universities supply much of the technical and social scientific expertise used by the Israeli military and intelligence services to repress Palestinians’ resistance to subjugation.
American academics have particular reason to join the BDS, as our government has repeatedly insulated Israel against the consequences of its lawless behavior.
More than 40 times, U.S. diplomats have vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli actions. We have overseen a peace process that Israel has exploited to expand its illegal West Bank settlements, now housing nearly 600,000 Israeli Jews, and thus to negate the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.
The international community must now grapple with the reality that Israel has fatally undermined the two-state solution.
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When governments fail in their duties, as ours has done in its futile Middle East policies, citizens — academics and others — must take action. The non-violent academic boycott of Israel, while primarily symbolic, can still be powerful, as the furious reactions of Israeli leaders to BDS attest.
Meanwhile, supporting equal rights for all residents of the Holy Land, regardless of religion or ethnicity, is a far greater gift to that region — and effective use of free speech — than the next jet fighter.
George Bisharat is a professor at University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. Readers may write to him at UC Hastings College of Law, 200 McAllister Street, San Francisco, Calif. 94102; email: bisharatuchastings.edu.