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Written by Student Rights on 5 January 2011 at 3pm

Academic Boycotts: Helpful or Harmful?

Israel_Palestine_FlagFirstly, welcome to 2011. 

We hope the New Year has good things in store for all, with a refreshed attitude to comraderie on university campuses across the country. A fine example of this are the London School of Economics Israel and Palestine Societies, who are working together to host an event discussing the academic boycott of Israel, whether it is helpful or harmful. 

Details can be found on Facebook. These two societies were at loggerheads at the end of last year following a speech by the contentious Abdel Bari Atwan, which led to Israeli students being called Nazis.  With these fresh wounds, we must consider what benefit academic boycotts carry - not just of Israel but certainly with the Middle East situation as a key case study in this discussion.

What are the power of academic boycotts?

In economic terms, very little.  The views of a few hundred academics (most of their institutions do not actively take part) don't tend to affect a state as, for instance, Student Unions refuse to stock goods from a certain country. The perceived power behind such sanctions as we saw against South Africa from the 1960s - 1990 is the symbolic nature of the campaign. 

The idea of isolating a state can have damaging public relations repercussions, but this in reality tends to widen the policy gap away from changes the campaigners wish to see.  Institutions lose valued staff and those staff and their communities lose respect for those institutions - it's mutally destructive. More pertinent is the impact the boycott can have on students, the future policy makers, politicians and commentators.  In the long run, academic boycotts can foster greater discord and actually hamper any progress as students in their formative years inherit an ability to dismiss and distrust a nation and its people. 

Students can be denied the voices of both rational sides of the argument, which then begs the question of discrimination. The Palestinian University Al Quds and the Israeli Hebrew University offered a joint statement in 2008 stating that "Bridging political gulfs - rather than widening them further apart - between nations and individuals thus becomes an educational duty as well as a functional necessity, requiring exchange and dialogue rather than confrontation and antagonism. Our disaffection with, and condemnation of acts of academic boycotts and discrimination against scholars and institutions, is predicated on the principles of academic freedom, human rights, and equality between nations and among individuals."

So if you feel strongly about something, should you just forget it?

Not at all.  This country has a fine tradition of peaceful protest, one which many students have forgotten in recent months.  A convincing bit of information that emerged after the violent student protests comes in the form of an Angus Reid poll from just last week which said that "Respondents were asked about the feelings they may have about the student demonstration over tuition fees that took place on 9 December in London. Half of respondents (50%) feel sadness, while two-in-five feel shame (45%), disgust (45%) and anger (42%)."

The majority of people agreed with police tactics and the majority of people would introduce water cannons to stave off future violent demonstrations.  This is a far cry from effective campaigning.

Avoiding violent behaviour and emotional knee-jerk responses is the best way of campaigning for policy changes, and to get your message across to colleagues and the wider public.  Building bridges and educating on matters, instead of closing down debate are the responsible and certain ways of getting attention.  We now have to apply these principles to the tactic of academic boycotts.

Are they peaceful?  Yes.

Do they build bridges and educate? No.

Do they interest the general public? No.

Do they interest policymakers? Not really.

Do they do justice to the nuances of the conflicts they are used around? No.

Do they discriminate absolutely? Yes.

By this method of analysis, we can come to the conclusion that academic boycotts are not a symbolic way of getting your point across, but a symbolic way of driving a wedge between communities and as the al-Quds and Hebrew universities commented, 'widen political gulfs'. (When compared for instance, with a Student Rights campaign to ban a certain egregious speaker from a university campus, the question might be asked, "Does this not close down the debate?"

To be blunt; no.  In the same way you wouldn't tolerate a speech from a Neo-Nazi on campus.  Extremist speakers are unrepresentative and preach views which are often violent and intolerant). If students want to engage in action to demonstrate their beliefs, it is suggested they do so with rigorous discussion, speeches, writing and if they are confident enough; taking on their opposition in debates. 

We commend the LSE Palestine and Israel Societies for coming together to discuss this matter - hopefully this can set a trend for most debates on campus going forward. In this light, there will be no need to invite the likes of Abdel Bari Atwan back to the LSE to deliver divisive diatribes.  All we need is... dialogue.