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Boycott Israel: A Professor’s Op-Ed, A University’s Nightmare

When you’re trying to run a university, the very last thing you need during a global recession is for one of your professors to go off on a public diatribe that angers donors into withholding funding.

But that uncomfortable scenario is precisely what is playing itself out at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, after an op-ed by Neve Gordon, a professor of political science at Ben-Gurion University, ran in the Los Angeles Times. The piece was titled “Boycott Israel.” Its subhead was “An Israeli Comes to the Painful Conclusion that it’s the Only Way To Save his Country.”

Describing Israel as an apartheid state and calling for an academic and cultural boycott of the country, Gordon cited and approved of  international sanctions already in place: film festival organizers eschewing Israeli produced movies and Oxfam severing ties with Sex and the City celebrity spokesperson Kristin Davis after she appeared in an Israeli cosmetics ad.

In the column, Gordon admitted the seeming contradiction in advocating a ban of his own country but maintained:

It is indeed not a simple matter for me as an Israeli citizen to call on foreign governments, regional authorities, international social movements, faith-based organizations, unions and citizens to suspend cooperation with Israel. But today, as I watch my two boys playing in the yard, I am convinced that it is the only way that Israel can be saved from itself. I say this because Israel has reached a historic crossroads, and times of crisis call for dramatic measures. I say this as a Jew who has chosen to raise his children in Israel, who has been a member of the Israeli peace camp for almost 30 years and who is deeply anxious about the country’s future.

Within hours, the backlash began. The professor’s column was reprinted in the Guardian, eliciting nearly 500 comments. Local columnists and bloggers penned immediate responses. None-too-happy, influential Los Angeles community benefactors picked up the phone to call Yaakov Dayan, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, to let him know they were considering keeping their checkbooks pocketed this year when BGU came calling.

“They were unanimous in threatening to withhold their donations to your institution,” Dayan was quoted in the Hebrew press as writing to Rivka Carmi, the university’s president. “My attempt to explain that one bad apple would affect hundreds of researchers turned out to be futile.”

The university PR department scrambled and Carmi put out a terse statement, backing it up with appearances on national television in Israel.

“We are shocked and outraged by his remarks,” Carmi stated, further distancing the university from Gordon’s remarks by officially disassociating from his “destructive views that abuse the freedom of speech prevailing in Israel and at BGU.”

Will the tenured professor at the public university get sacked? Probably not.

He will likely continue to collect his salary — supplied by the tax coffers of the state he feels should be boycotted.

The additional irony is that Gordon shoots himself and the rest of the Israeli peace camp in the proverbial foot with his calls for a boycott.

Were such boycott in place, Israeli cultural eye openers like director Ari Folman’s multiple award-winning, Oscar-nominated Waltz With Bashir wouldn’t have made film festival rounds. Choreographer Sally-Anne Friedland’s politically charged Dance Drama Company performance of “Borders” wouldn’t have shown at New York’s 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Festival.  And academically, a boycott would potentially rob Gordon’s BGU colleagues of funding for crucial joint Palestinian-Israeli desalination and desertification projects aimed at stabilizing regional conflict over water scarcity issues.

In a rebuttal of sorts, David Newman, Gordon’s university colleague, argued in Sunday’s Jerusalem Post that he views the type of punitive measures advocated by his colleague as ineffective and unethical, immaterial to Israel’s alleged treatment of Palestinians.

“’Two wrongs don’t make a right,’ but it’s a lot more than that — Israel’s universities constitute the public spaces where Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and discourse take place,” Newman asserts.

Boycotts would effectively curtail that dialogue.

Newman added that he respects his colleague’s right to make his point publicly, emphasizing that ”this is something which Israel’s universities can be proud of. It is this level of democracy, pluralism, and freedom of speech which few in the world, not least many of those proposing boycotts from abroad, can share.”

Ironically, should donors withhold their dollars from BGU because of their anger over Gordon’s remarks, they will be helping his cause. Halted funding to the university means that the very boycott Gordon advocated will be circuitously implemented.