by Anna Andersen
Published: Monday, February 23, 2009
Sondra Hale, a UCLA professor in the anthropology and women’s studies departments, is an organizing committee member of the recently launched U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel.
Eleven of the 15 organizing committee members represent California universities, and four of them are from the University of California. Nearly 200 faculty members from universities across the nation are endorsing the boycott.
The committee was formed in response to a call for support by Palestinian civil society and follows the guidelines drafted by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which was launched in 2004, according to its Web site.
The call is “inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid and in the spirit of international solidarity, moral consistency and resistance to injustice and oppression,” according to its mission statement.
Although there have been local efforts to boycott and divest from Israeli companies in the past, this is the first attempt in the United States to organize an academic and cultural boycott on a national level, Hale said.
The U.S. boycott was largely provoked by the recent attack on Gaza, in which hundreds of children were killed, Hale said.
“The bombing of the Islamic University of Gaza was an important impetus,” she added. “That made us think Israeli academics should take a stand and put pressure on their universities, which are highly implicated in the developing of weapons through scientific research, not unlike other universities.”
However, the boycott is institutional and is not aimed at individual academics and cultural figures, Hale said.
It means that foreign exchange and cooperative programs with Israel would cease, but it doesn’t mean that Israeli academics would stop being invited to speak at UCLA or that their work would cease to be published, Hale added.
The academic and cultural boycott of Israel is part of a global boycott, divestments and sanctions movement supporting Palestine.
On Feb. 7, Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., became the first college in the United States to divest from Israel due to its occupation of Palestine.
It was also the first college or university to divest from South Africa during the apartheid struggle.
However, for various reasons, not all professors support the boycott.
Since Hampshire College divested, Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor, has put pressure on the college to rescind its statement, Hale said.
Marc Trachtenberg, a UCLA professor in the political science department is also against the boycott.
“The main reason I’m against the boycott is because it is very one-sided,” Trachtenberg said.
“The key to a settlement is to put pressure on both sides. The more one side is castigated, the more power the other side feels and the less pressure they feel to act,” he said. “It’s counterproductive. The trick to policy is to structure incentives.”
Trachtenberg said he would feel the same way about extreme action taken by the other side as well.
Still, the U.S. Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel campaign believes it is time to take a stance, “especially in light of the censorship and silencing of the Palestine question in U.S. universities, as well as U.S. society at large,” according to the campaign’s mission statement.
Hale, who is also the chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee of the Center for Near Eastern Studies and the co-chair for Islamic Studies, said she feels this pressure at UCLA in the form of internal and external complaints.
“After the Center for Near Eastern Studies held the Jan. 21 ‘Human Rights and Gaza’ panel, we received an enormous amount of pressure from administrators complaining that our panel was not balanced enough,” Hale said.
“It has a chilling effect,” Hale added.
She said would like to be able to discuss this controversial subject with clarity and respect for both sides on the UCLA campus.
Chancellor Gene Block was not immediately available for comment, but his office recently released a statement in early February regarding academic freedom at UCLA.
In his statement, Chancellor Block discussed the controversy surrounding the conflict in the Middle East and specifically in Gaza.
In response to complaints about the “Human Rights and Gaza” panel, he wrote about the importance of protecting freedom of expression and maintaining scholarly balance.
“We have a responsibility to protect the freedom of expression. We also all have a responsibility to listen and engage, respectfully, even as we must understand that not every campus forum on a controversial topic will satisfy passionate and concerned members of the campus and broader communities,” he said in his statement.