The Universities and Israel

Boycott Theory and the Struggle for Palestine: Universities, Intellectualism, and Liberation by Nick Riemer (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003)

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has three arms: the commercial, the cultural and the academic. The focus of Nick Riemer’s book is the last. Before discussing the arguments and merits of this book, it is useful to reprise the key points behind the campaign. Launched in 2005 by 170 Palestinian organisations including unions, refugee groups, women’s groups, popular resistance committees and professional associations, it calls for nonviolent pressure on Israel until it complies with international law by meeting three demands:

  • ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
  • recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality
  • respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

The movement has no stake in any specific political structure that might follow the realisation of these aims. This is an important point, as it speaks to the campaign’s basic commitment to acknowledging the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination. This neutrality with respect to any future political form serves a second purpose: by taking a position that is ethical rather than political, BDS advocates can rebut the accusations of bias that come their way: ‘As was the case with apartheid South Africa, our objections are ethical not racial’. Riemer makes this clear early in his text. He also clarifies another point: that the BDS academic campaign does not propose a complete academic boycott, but rather that individual-to-individual academic cooperation continue while institution-to-institution, high-level collaboration is formally and publicly eschewed.

In his chapter ‘Institutions of Occupation and Resistance’, Riemer presents an account of the Israeli state’s root-and-branch oppression of Palestinian education as one dimension of a larger colonial project. Israeli universities, Riemer argues, play a leading role and take up multiple functions in this process. He shows in detail how Israeli universities are heavily involved in anti-Palestinian collaborations that act in ‘scientific and ideological service to the Zionist project’. Most obviously, though not exclusively, this is evident in ‘disciplines like history, archaeology, sociology and Middle Eastern studies’. Rather than being beacons of free thought and progressivism, these bodies co-create and legitimise injustice. Riemer goes on to make the case that boycotts are not ‘departures from the ordinary conduct of the academy’, and that focusing attention on Israel is neither partisan nor arbitrary, as it ‘asks to be judged by the standards of liberal democracies, and therefore should be’.

The chapter ‘Little Israels’ is perhaps the book’s liveliest. Riemer provocatively argues that Western universities are being ‘Israelised’. In developing this argument he points out parallels between the conduct and ideology of Western universities and those of the state of Israel. Each projects a liberal posture while being increasingly hierarchical and authoritarian; each is exclusive and tightly enclosed while espousing openness and diversity; each talks of respect and human dignity while developing interdependencies with the military and arms industries.

Overall, Riemer argues that the humanities play a key role in disqualifying academic actors from taking concrete political action, noting that the ‘effect of scholarly political quietism is, of course, wholly political in its reinforcement of the status quo’. Today, he argues, political commitment as part of one’s scholarly engagement is ‘considered simplistic, lacking nuance, engaging in binary thinking, or advancing a politically motivated critique’. Given the hegemony of this outlook, the BDS campaign is frequently seen as not only career-jeopardising but also lying outside of what is fit and proper.

An intriguing element here is Riemer’s account of Michele Lamont’s work on the roles played by ‘confidence’ and ‘complicity’ in the academy. Lamont argues that coming across as convinced and convincing is an essential prerequisite for succeeding as a professional academic, and that getting ahead requires academics to find their mirrors in research funding bodies and other engines that will push them up the promotion ladder. Riemer thinks that Lamont doesn’t go far enough in assessing the likelihood of collusion with the powers-that-be in many cases of attaining academic success. What’s needed, he argues, is greater transparency to combat the ‘profession’s complicity with, and investment in, arbitrary regimes of unjustified power’, a critique that implicates the market-oriented contemporary university in general.

Riemer’s final chapter—‘The Opium of the Educated’—focuses again on the importance of political action, and draws important distinctions between how thought and action proceed. Riemer sees academics as cocooned and highly privileged, and so embroiled in their own creative practice (which they consider essential) and their own work (which they consider crucial) that questions of power and collusion evaporate. Once the institutional rewards come into play, political engagement, or even asking oneself about the ethicality of one’s research, is counter-intuitive.

Riemer could perhaps have honed his critique a little more here to focus on the ranks of senior university staff. Unlike contract staff and early career researchers for whom taking a public stand could put their jobs at risk, senior figures are generally freed from such material concerns. Their failure to identify or contest Zionist research agendas seems much more likely to rest on the hubris and complacency Riemer describes. This minor point to one side, the theoretical depth Riemer displays—from Adorno to Zizek—sparkles and stimulates. More impressive still are the striking arguments he puts forward. Rather than be spooked by what looks like the Mack-sized truck that’s coming at anyone critical of Israeli state policies—the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of anti-Semitism that conflates criticism of Israeli policies with racism—he argues that this discursive trompe l’oeil is a sign of desperation, not vigour. Given that so much that is unjust and deranged is being allowed to pass unquestioned—for example, ex-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent comment on the accord between Israel, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates: ‘I am confident that the Lord is at work here’—this reframing is welcome.

Like other Palestinian advocates, Riemer contests Israel’s endlessly recycled status as a progressive exemplar in a backward region, for example, journalist Peter Hartcher’s recent comment that ‘[Israel] is an island of democracy amid a sea of autocracies’. BDS movement arguments de-centre such claims in their critique of Israel as a racist, ethno-theocratic and increasingly fascistic colonial polity. Similarly, Israel’s ‘world leader’ hi-tech reputation gets attention. However advanced its cyber industry may be, an official nonchalance that allows companies to develop and export an avalanche of securitisation ‘solutions’ mocks any claim to ‘excellence’, especially when such solutions have had their testing-ground in security measures against the Palestinians.

Riemer’s arguments are especially timely given the ascent of a noxious ruling coalition in Israeli politics. This dark phenomenon has resulted in escalating repression and violence. In such a deteriorating context, reactionaries have to double down on their fictions to obscure the ever-more-obvious injustices that are being perpetuated. The BDS campaign has an important role to play in shining a light on these injustices, and, at a different level, in exposing the discursive deceits and perversions of logic employed to impede these wrongs being seen. ‘Settlers’ are allowed to illegally invade and occupy the West Bank? If this proposition is subjected to the most basic of inspections it is exposed as a replay of the terra nullius argument.

Late in his book Riemer notesthat in Boycotting Israel Is Wrong, Philip Mendes and Nick Dyrenfurth reach a clear conclusion: that they are ‘highly pessimistic about the chances of a peace deal being struck in the near future’. This position, Riemer argues, rationalises quietism and reinforces a fundamentally unjust political order. Riemer’s retort is pithy: ‘pessimism and depression are infectious and lead inexorably back to the status quo’. In counterpoint to so much circulating about a victimised Israel, Riemer’s book is a work of ethical and affective commitment in which the latter, perforce, is animated by the former.

Who has the right to self-defence, the occupier or the occupied?

Ali Kazak, 10 Nov 2023

All colonialists and occupiers have called the resistance they have faced ‘terrorism’, from the French, British and Dutch colonialists to the Nazi, fascists and South African apartheid regime.

About the author

Mark Furlong

Mark Furlong is an independent scholar, and thinker-in-residence at the Bouverie Centre, La Trobe University: .

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Categorised: Arena Quarterly, Arena Quarterly #15

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