On January 26, 2009, Inside Higher Ed published an article with the following headline: "Israel Boycott Movement Comes to US." The article plays out the debate between proponents of an academic, cultural and economic boycott of Israel, such as Teachers Against Occupation member David Lloyd, and opponents who position themselves as the upholders of academic freedom, such as Columbia University president Lee Bollinger. The defenders of academic freedom in this case, clearly position themselves as defenders of Israel, but they show little interest or concern for the academic freedoms of Palestinians. As the article notes, in 2007 almost 300 presidents of US universities signed a statement written by Bollinger opposing the British academic boycott of Israel, but as a group they have done nothing to protest Israel's violations of academic freedoms in the occupied territories, or its destruction of Palestinian educational institutions during the recent assault on Gaza.
While the political terrain in the US still favors Israel, the academic and cultural boycott is certainly gaining some ground. The growth of the campaign is partly evident by the widely circulating calls to university professors and students to join the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott Israel (PACBI) and the January 2009 launching of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI). The response to the PACBI calls for support has been quite significant internationally receiving endorsements from Quebec to South Africa. In the US, responses have taken a number of different forms. For example, student activists at the University of Michigan have called with marginal success on the Michigan Student Assembly to support a boycott of Israel.
Ad hoc groups of academics and intellectuals are circulating and publishing petitions that clearly call for a boycott. For instance, Steven Salaita, a professor at Virginia Tech, has published an important statement calling for an academic boycott of Israel in Dissident Voice and in The Progressive that includes the signatures of over 50 international intellectuals, including the Black American author Amiri Baraka, the South African writer Breyten Breytenbach and the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif.
This statement and similar petitions identify Israel as a rogue state, comparable to apartheid era South Africa, that must be made to respect international law and grant Palestinians their rights; the boycott campaign is a non-violent means of applying pressure on Israel. Even if the majority of universities do not embrace the boycott in the short term, the long term boycott campaign and the debate that it generates provides a crucial opportunity to link action in the US with Palestinian grassroots initiatives and also to expose Israel's human rights violations.
Postscript: opponents of the boycott of Israel claim that Israel is being singled out while many other countries around the world, including the US, commit far worse human rights abuses. But the truth is that the boycott campaign seeks to hold Israel to the same standards as other countries. The boycott movement calls on the international community to make Israel accountable for its treatment of Palestinians, and not to give it a pass when the Israeli army kills 1300 Palestinians in 3 weeks, establishes an 18 month blockade of Gaza, imprisons 1000s of Palestinians, and disrupts in the most humiliating ways the quotidian lives of the residents of Gaza and the West Bank. (See also Raphael Ahren, "US Professors Call for Academic Boycott of Israel," Haaretz Jan 29, 2009)