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  • ברק מדינה

Is it Justified to Boycott Israeli Academia?

Barak Medina, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

In the aftermath of the Gaza conflict, there is a noticeable uptick in efforts to sever academic ties with Israeli scholars and universities. Should persons advocating for justice, peace, and the protection of civilians support such a boycott of Israelis?

Proponents of the boycott typically cite two main reasons: (1) the perceived reprehensibility of Israel’s actions; and (2) the belief that academic boycott can pressure Israel into altering its behavior or facing consequences. In what follows I suggest that both arguments are flawed: While certain Israeli actions should warrant critique, the broader policies are defensible; moreover, even if one perceives Israel’s policies as fundamentally wrong, engaging in academic boycott at this juncture is counterproductive and likely to exacerbate rather than ameliorate the situation. Consequently, I suggest that rather than severing ties with Israelis, regardless of their views or potential contributions to peace, what is needed is greater engagement of intellectuals from around the world with Israelis and Palestinians.

1. Are Israel’s Activities Deplorable?

The situation in Gaza is tragic. The loss of innocent Palestinian lives, including children, and the destruction of residential buildings, hospitals, and universities should deeply concern everyone. However, judging Israel’s actions requires considering two key factors: Israel’s objectives in its attacks, and Hamas’s war tactics.

Hamas’s terror attack on October 7 highlighted the grave threat posed by the organization. Hamas has committed brutal acts, including the murder of over 1,200 Israelis (including around 850 civilians), and the kidnapping of 240 individuals, including infants, children, and the elderly. Thousands of Palestinians from Gaza actively participated in this attack led by Hamas, which openly threatens additional terror strikes to annihilate Israel.

Israel’s military campaign serves a dual purpose: preventing further attacks by neutralizing Hamas’ military capabilities, and securing the release of Israeli abductees. These objectives are defensive, not retaliatory. They are not only permissible but morally imperative. In the face of such barbaric attacks, it's challenging to envision a democracy not reacting similarly to protect its citizens within its territory. While many critics condemn Hamas’s actions, few offer viable alternatives to Israel’s response.

The IDF’s actions demonstrate a commitment to distinguishing between combatants and civilians, facilitating civilian evacuations, and minimizing harm. IDF guidelines expressly forbid targeting legitimate military objectives if it risks excessive harm to civilians. Nevertheless, the people of Gaza suffer immense losses. Israel’s actions have resulted, although unintentionally, in the deaths of thousands of Palestinian civilians, including children, and extensive damage to civilian infrastructure. But drawing moral conclusions solely from these consequences overlooks the primary cause of this tragedy: Hamas’s war tactics.

Hamas systematically exploits civilian infrastructure for military purposes, storing weapons, launching rockets, and constructing tunnels under civilian areas, including residential buildings, hospitals, and universities. Hamas’s combatants constantly use civilian infrastructure to launch rockets against Israeli population and shot at Israeli soldiers. These unlawful tactics deny civilian infrastructure immunity from attack.

I do not suggest that the moral evaluation of the situation is straightforward. Given Hamas’s tactics, avoiding Palestinian civilian casualties would require Israel to refrain from military action, risking further Hamas attacks and endangering the lives of thousands of Israelis. Conversely, achieving legitimate military objectives may unavoidably result in unintentional harm to innocent Palestinians. It's a tragic dilemma with no easy solutions. While neither extreme option—completely avoiding civilian casualties or sacrificing them to achieve military goals—is morally acceptable, the challenge lies in determining the harm to civilians that can be morally and legally justified.

There’s no clear answer to this question. The assessment must compare expected deaths under different scenarios and also consider factors such as the moral responsibility of civilian populations, and the broader regional implications of peace versus continued Hamas’s terrorism. Given the complexity of the situation, I can’t unequivocally argue that Israel acts within proportionality limits. I lack complete information and acknowledge my potential bias as an Israeli, living close to Gaza. However, suggesting that Israel causes excessive harm requires more information and argumentation than is currently available. Accusations of genocide against Israel are baseless and rooted in antisemitism. Similarly, calls to boycott Israeli academia ignore the reasons behind Israel’s actions and fail to offer morally defensible alternatives.

2. Is Academic Boycott of Israel a Just Means?

Assume that the argument above is flawed, and Israel’s policies are inherently wrong. The question remains: is academic boycott a justifiable means? While individual sanctions against morally reprehensible behavior may be warranted, imposing collective sanctions in response to a government’s policies presents challenges.

An academic boycott against scholars just because they are Israelis is a sanction that is imposed indiscriminately, irrespective of each individual’s blame and moral responsibility. There might be instances in which such measure may be justifiable. This is the case, primarily, when a change of policy through internal democratic means—political processes, judicial review, or other routes—is highly unlikely. When confronted with a regime which curtails free speech, when elections are corrupt, judicial independence is lacking, or when the relevant population provides sweeping support for the government’s morally wrong policies, resort to boycott might be inevitable. In contrast, in a well-functioning democracy, as is the case with Israel, indiscriminate boycotts, such as academic boycott, are often both immoral and counterproductive.

The direct consequence of a successful academic boycott against Israel is clear: Israeli academia, ranked internationally, according to some measures, in the top 5 in per-capita terms and around the top 15 in absolute terms, would suffer. Many Israeli scholars would seek opportunities abroad, leading to a brain drain and a decline in higher education quality. While proponents of boycotts may view this as a positive development, the ultimate result may be the opposite. The more likely scenario is the effect of boycotts against pariah states like North Korea and Iran, which further radicalized and militarized those regimes, rather than the outcome of the boycott of apartheid-era South Africa.

Israel’s thriving democracy is characterized by a vibrant liberal camp that plays a crucial role in checking the government’s actions. Weakening Israeli academia would undermine this liberal voice and weaken the democratic fabric of Israeli society. In Israel, as in many other democracies, there is a very high correlation between academic education and commitment to the values of liberalism, the rule of law, judicial independence, and support for establishing a Palestinian State. Higher education is also the vehicle for social mobility, providing essential opportunities to Arab-Palestinian Israelis. Moreover, Israeli academic scholars are at the forefront of the campaign to save Israeli democracy and ensure that the government obeys international laws. Faculty members, together with those educated in academia, have proved effective in the campaign against the government’s 2023 plan for judicial overhaul. These are the same persons who currently lead the mass demonstrations against the Israeli government policy regarding the war, in a call for a ceasefire and the resignation of Prime-Minister Netanyahu. Pushing Israeli scholars away from Israel is likely to result in the collapse of judicial review and the rule of law, and substantially strengthen those part of society that call for “Jewish supremacy.” A strong Israeli academia is a crucial component in pushing Israel to the right direction. It should be supported, not attacked.

Moreover, the IDF consists primarily of reservist soldiers, namely civilians who are called for duty on a mostly voluntary basis. These reservists, to a large extent, are students or university graduates. They, along with army generals, play the role of the "responsible adult" in Israeli society. Pushing these individuals outside of Israel will indeed weaken the Israeli army, but at the same time, it will increase the proportion of soldiers who are less committed to obeying the rule of law.

In summary, an academic boycott against Israel is not only unjustified but also counterproductive. What is needed is greater engagement of intellectuals from around the world with Israelis and Palestinians. Scholars should meet Israelis and Palestinians, learn from them, hear their stories, understand their fears, offer them advice, and share international perspectives. Rather than severing ties with Israelis, regardless of their views or potential contributions to peace, a more demanding but justified and productive approach involves active engagement and collaboration.



Boycott of Israeli academic professor who doesn't honor the Shabbat and publish posts in Shabbat is totally respectful.

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