The academic boycott of apartheid South Africa is often cited as a model for the current boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The reality is that they could not be more different except in one aspect: such boycotts alone are ineffective.
In South Africa, the academic boycott employed a series of international embargoes on institutions and scholars during the apartheid era. But it was backed up by economic, social and sporting sanctions aimed at isolating what had become a pariah state.
As early as 1964, 496 British professors from some 34 universities signed a declaration protesting against South Africa’s policies of exclusion and separation. Proponents of the boycott believed that academics should not be immune from the political and social ills of apartheid.
South African universities – government institutions reliant on state funding – were obliged to follow the law of the land and impose segregation policies along racial lines. Universities and other institutions of higher learning thus became institutions mostly for white South Africans. And as white nationalism grew, numerous Afrikaans-speaking universities sprung up and gained popularity in this period. Such institutions were exclusively for white Afrikaners. Students of other races and language groups were excluded or discouraged from enrolling.
At the time, anti-apartheid cleric Desmond Tutu encouraged the sanctions. However, he said they should not be a blanket boycott on institutions but rather case-by-case embargos. Tutu nevertheless felt the boycott served to remind so-called liberal universities that they were not doing enough to champion the end of segregation in universities.
By 1980 the momentum of the anti-apartheid movement had grown to such an extent that the United Nations called for “academic and cultural institutions to cut links with South Africa.
But there was opposition to the boycott. Opponents from within the anti-apartheid movement felt that the lack of interaction and free flow of ideas was stifling the development of the very people the boycott aimed at helping. In reality the academic boycott was more of a symbolic gesture then a concrete strategy for ending apartheid. On the contrary, it encouraged the growth of ideas and the development of homegrown technology. Academia thrives in exchanging and debating ideas. Being cut off encouraged South African institutions to resort to more rigorous internal exchanges as well as inter-university exchanges.
Furthermore, in some cases academics were able to maneuver around blockades. Often a third party would be used to exchange ideas and research. Many academics simply ignored the boycott, especially in the field of science. Others imposed their own restrictions on themselves, not bothering to apply or submit work to international bodies.
A survey conducted in 1991 by the University of Illinois found that the boycott of South African universities was more of “an irritation then a true obstacle to academic development. The survey concluded that with the exception of making a symbolic gesture the academic boycott had very little true impact in isolating South African institutions of higher education.
It is even less likely that an academic boycott against Israel will succeed. Unlike in South Africa, where the international community, eventually including the United States, endorsed boycotting the racial policies of the apartheid state, there is less international cohesion when it comes to Israel.
The proposal for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions first appeared in a newspaper article in 2002 in which academics Steven and Hilary Rose called for a moratorium on all cultural and research links with Israel. Three years later, the British based Association of University Teachers, which was then the trade union representing teachers and professors, launched a boycott of two Israeli universities. But the backlash from the Jewish Diaspora was so severe that the boycott lasted less than a month.
Changing its tactic, the same trade union, which later changed its name to University and College Union, tried a more subtle approach. It called on academic institutions to “consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions.
But such a boycott will also fail. Universities in the US have not backed their British counterparts and there has not been widespread condemnation, in contrast to the case of South Africa. The international pro-Israel lobby – considerably more effective then the pro-apartheid lobby ever was – has been quick to overturn any attempt at punitive sanctions. Israel’s strong historic and economic links with the US make it practically untouchable.
An academic boycott of Israel in isolation is never going to achieve its goal. Even the hope of a symbolic gesture of defiance is unlikely to do more than draw unwelcome comparisons with academic boycotts in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Any academic boycott will be ineffective if it is applied in isolation: it needs to be backed up with economic and social sanctions. Mark Kluseneris a South African journalist currently living and working in Ramallah. He started his career in the early 1990s in South Africa and has worked for various South African and international media organizations for the past decade. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.