Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Movement

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the academic boycott of Israel?

Being the part of the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) tasked with overseeing the academic and cultural boycott aspects of BDS, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) has advocated, since 2004, for a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions. This is based on the fact that these institutions are deeply complicit in planning, implementing, justifying and/or whitewashing the Israeli system of oppression that has denied Palestinians their basic rights guaranteed by international law, or has hampered their exercise of these rights, including academic freedom and the right to education. There is a growing number of anti-colonial Israelis who support BDS, including the cultural boycott of Israel. The BDS movement opposes all forms of discrimination, including Islamaphobia, anti-semitism and discrimination on the basis of nationality. The academic boycott is a boycott of Israeli institutions not individuals. The BDS movement rejects boyctting individuals on the basis of their identity and does not call for a boycott of individual Israeli academics simply because of their affiliation to a complicit university. However, this does not exclude Israeli academics who are appearing as representatives of a complicit institution (such as a president or spokesperson). It also does not exclude Israeli academics from “common sense” boycotts that are organised on the basis of opposition to someone’s support for or participation in violations of international law and human rights. Note: The PACBI Guidelines for the International Academic Boycott of Israel are the authoritative guide for academic boycott of Israel. They can be viewed here. This brief only introduces the essence of the guidelines.

Why have Palestinians called for an academic boycott of Israel?

Because boycotting Israel’s academic institutions can pressure them to end their decades-old complicity in violating Palestinian rights and can further isolate Israel’s regime of oppression.

How are Israeli universities aiding Israel’s oppression of Palestinians?

Academic institutions are a key part of the ideological and institutional scaffolding of Israel’s regime of occupation, colonialism and apartheid against the Palestinian people. Israeli universities are profoundly complicit in developing weapon systems and military doctrines deployed in Israel’s recent war crimes in Lebanon and Gaza; justifying the ongoing colonization of Palestinian land, rationalizing the gradual ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinians; providing moral justification for extra-judicial killings and indiscriminate attacks against civilians; systematically discriminating against “non-Jewish” students in admissions, dormitory room eligibility, financial aid, etc.; and many other implicit and explicit violations of human rights and international law. Some Israeli universities, such as Ariel and Hebrew University, are built fully or partially as colonies in the occupied Palestinian territory in contravention of international law.

Do Palestinian academics support the academic boycott of Israel?

Absolutely. When it was launched in 2004, the PACBI Call was endorsed by the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE), the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU), the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO) and many other civil society networks. The PACBI call, which was later officially endorsed by the Palestinian Council for Higher Education (CHE), is in line with the CHE’s authoritative call for "non-cooperation in the scientific and technical fields between Palestinian and Israeli universities."

What are the principles of the academic boycott?

The academic boycott that we are calling for is institutional. The BNC, including PACBI, upholds the universal right to academic freedom.  The institutional boycott called for by Palestinian civil society does not conflict with such freedom.  PACBI subscribes to the internationally-accepted definition of academic freedom as adopted by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (UNESCR).Anchored in precepts of international law and universal human rights, the BDS movement, including PACBI, rejects on principle boycotts of individuals based on their identity (such as citizenship, race, gender, or religion) or opinion.  If, however, an individual is representing the state of Israel or a complicit Israeli institution (such as a dean, rector, or president), or is commissioned/recruited to participate in Israel’s efforts to “rebrand” itself, then her/his activities are subject to the institutional boycott the BDS movement is calling for.  Mere affiliation of Israeli scholars to an Israeli academic institution is therefore not grounds for applying the boycott.

Note: The PACBI Guidelines for the International Academic Boycott of Israel are the authoritative guide for academic boycott of Israel. They can be viewed here. This brief only introduces the essence of the guidelines.

Are there guidelines for implementing the academic boycott?

Yes, the full Guidelines for the International Academic Boycott of Israel can be read here.If anything is unclear or you need further advice/guidance in navigating a grey-area case, as many cases tend to be, please contact us at: ​

Does the boycott target individual academics and scholars?

No. Our academic boycott targets institutions, not individuals. The only exception is when an individual academic is an official representative of, not merely affiliated to, her/his complicit Israeli academic institution. An individual academic, Israeli or otherwise, however, cannot be exempt from being subject to “common sense” boycotts (beyond the scope of the PACBI institutional boycott criteria) that conscientious citizens around the world may call for in response to egregious individual complicity in, responsibility for, or advocacy of war crimes or other grave human rights violations; incitement to violence; etc. At this level, Israeli academics should be treated like all other offenders in the same category, not better or worse. Note: The PACBI Guidelines for the International Academic Boycott of Israel are the authoritative guide for academic boycott of Israel. 

Doesn’t the academic boycott undermine the principle of academic freedom?

The academic boycott that we are calling for is institutional and therefore does not conflict with academic freedom.  The BNC, including PACBI, upholds the universal right to academic freedom.  PACBI subscribes to the internationally-accepted definition of academic freedom as adopted by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (UNESCR). Israeli academics may lose privileges, not rights, due to the boycott of their institutions.

Some opponents of the academic boycott may argue, still, that it contravenes academic freedom because it cannot but hurt individual academics if it is to be effective at all. This argument is problematic on many levels. By ignoring the real and systematic Israeli suppression of Palestinian rights, including academic freedom, and focusing solely on the hypothetical infringement on Israeli academic freedom that the boycott allegedly would entail, hypocritical, to say the least. Israel’s relentless and deliberate attack on Palestinian education, which some have recently termed scholasticide, goes back to the 1948 Nakba, the wave of systematic ethnic cleansing of a majority of the indigenous Palestinians to establish a Jewish-majority state in Palestine. An Israeli researcher’s dissertation reveals that in that period tens of thousands of Palestinian books stolen from homes, schools and libraries in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Safad and elsewhere were plundered and destroyed by Zionist -- and later Israeli -- militias. In the first few weeks of the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993), Israel shut down all Palestinian universities, some, like Birzeit, for several consecutive years, and then it closed all 1,194 Palestinian schools in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. Next came the kindergartens, until every educational institution in the occupied Palestinian territories was forcibly closed. This prompted Palestinians to build an “illegal network” of underground schools. Palestinian scholars and students are methodically denied their basic rights, including academic freedom, and are often subjected to imprisonment, denial of freedom of movement, and even violent attacks on themselves or their institutions. If exercising the right to academic freedom is conditioned upon respecting other human rights and securing what Judith Butler calls the “material conditions for exercising those rights,” then clearly it is the academic freedom of Palestinian academics and students that is severely hindered, due to the occupation and policies of racial discrimination, and that must be defended. Palestinian citizens of Israel have also suffered for decades from the structural racism that pervades the Israeli educational system.  According to Human Rights Watch: “Discrimination at every level of the [Israeli] education system winnows out a progressively larger proportion of Palestinian Arab children as they progress through the school system—or channels those who persevere away from the opportunities of higher education. The hurdles Palestinian Arab students face from kindergarten to university function like a series of sieves with sequentially finer holes.” Finally, Even though the academic boycott of Israel does not undercut academic freedom, PACBI founders, in harmony with the BDS movement’s profound commitment to universal human rights, have consistently argued that this freedom should not be privileged as above other human rights. The 1993 World Conference on Human Rights proclaims, “All human rights are universal, indivisible . . . interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis.”

Doesn’t the academic boycott prevent scholarly exchange?

No. The boycott does not target individuals and does not prevent Israeli scholars from engaging with international scholars and international institutions. Only if an exchange is part of an institutional relationship with a complicit Israeli institution does it become subject to boycott.

Are Palestinians and Israelis asked to boycott Israeli universities?

Absolutely not. BDS guidelines distinguish between coercive and voluntary relationships. Palestinian citizens of Israel – those Palestinians who remained steadfast on their land after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 despite repeated efforts to expel them and subject them to military law, institutionalized discrimination, or apartheid – live under Israeli apartheid. As citizens and taxpayers, they cannot but engage in everyday relations including employment in Israeli places of work and the use of public services and institutions such as schools, universities and hospitals. Such coercive relations are not unique to Israel and were present in other colonial and apartheid contexts such as India and South Africa, respectively. Palestinian citizens of Israel cannot be rationally asked to cut such ties, at least not yet. While BDS does not encourage Palestinians in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territory to enroll in Israeli academic institutions, unless they are compelled to, it does not consider such enrolment as a violation of the boycott guidelines. There is no double standard when the oppressed community calls on the outside world to boycott institutions that it itself cannot boycott due to coercive conditions of living under apartheid or colonial rule. Having the choice to boycott complicit academic institutions or not, which international scholars do, engenders an ethical responsibility which is absent when one has no choice. Based on the same principle above, Israelis, as citizens and taxpayers, cannot be expected to boycott Israeli academic institutions.

Israeli universities are centres of critical debate. Won’t the academic boycott alienate progressive Israeli academics?

When it comes to Palestinian rights under international law, Israeli universities are a pillar of Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.  The assumption that they are “progressive” and “at the forefront of defending Palestinian rights” is false; it results from baseless propaganda and fabrications circulated mostly by Israel, including by Zionist Israeli academics. Censorship and denial of academic freedom in Israeli universities have been well documented by Palestinian as well as Israeli scholars.  Discussion of fundamental subjects such as the Nakba, the right of Palestinian refugees to return, Zionism, the complicity of Israeli academic institutions in settler-colonial and apartheid projects, etc. are often off-limits on campus. When Israeli historian Ilan Pappe supervised a graduate thesis by a Jewish student on one of the massacres committed by Zionist militias during the Nakba he suffered serious institutional and individual repercussions.  Moreover, the assumption that “most” Israeli scholars are “progressive,” by any objective definition of the term, is flatly false. Even speaking out for the most basic demands of academic freedom for Palestinians is opposed by an overwhelming majority of Israeli academics. Expressing "great concern regarding the ongoing deterioration of the system of higher education in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip," four Jewish-Israeli academics in 2008 drafted a petition calling on their government to "allow students and lecturers free access to all the campuses in the Territories …." Although the petition was sent to all 9,000 plus Israeli academics, only 407 signed it – slightly over 4%.

Is the academic boycott effective?

Clearly. Just ask Israeli leaders. Israeli president Reuven Rivlin has recently described the academic boycott of Israel as a “strategic threat of the first order.”  The “threat” here refers to the role this boycott plays in undermining Israel’s entire regime of occupation and apartheid, given the central role of academia in this system.  Israel has for decades succeeded in projecting in the west a false image of democracy, covering up its decades-old denial of Palestinian rights.  Israeli academia has always been the main diffuser of this propaganda, contributing to whitewashing Israel’s crimes and enabling it to continue oppressing the Palestinian people with impunity. With the spreading academic boycott of Israel, this role is being undermined and Israel’s true face as a regime of oppression is being revealed to the world like never before.  Former Israeli president Shimon Peres explains the connection: “Israel has been blessed with a lot of talent that manufactures many excellent products. In order to export, you need good products, but you also need good relations. So why make peace? Because, if Israel’s image gets worse, it will begin to suffer boycotts.”

Are there differences between the academic boycotts of South Africa and Israel?

Yes, a major difference. BDS calls for a boycott of Israeli institutions, not individuals. The South African anti-apartheid boycott targeted both institutions and individuals. Those who are still reluctant, on principle, to support a boycott that expressly targets Israel's academic institutions while having in the past endorsed, or even struggled to implement, a much more sweeping academic boycott against apartheid South Africa’s academics and universities are hard pressed to explain this peculiar inconsistency.

I am an Israeli academic working in an Israeli university. How can I support the boycott?

While conscientious Israeli academics who support BDS are not expected to boycott Israeli universities, obviously, they have supported the academic boycott of Israel in various ways.  All of them have advocated for Palestinian rights in public, thereby contributing to the fight against Israel’s dehumanization of the Palestinians. Most have called on international academics and institutions not to continue business as usual with Israeli institutions until they end their deep complicity in Israel’s regime of oppression against the Palestinians.  Many have played an indispensable role in exposing Israel's system of colonialism and apartheid, whether through their academic work or public advocacy.

I am an academic and I support Palestinian rights. Why should I support the boycott?

Few forms of pressure have triggered as much alarm in Israel’s colonial establishment as the growing divestment movement on US college campuses, the mushrooming support for an institutional academic boycott of Israel among US academic associations, and the silent boycott exercised by many individual academics around the world. Israel realizes as much as Palestinians and our supporters do that an effective, comprehensive academic boycott of Israel would irreversibly hurt the “Brand Israel” and feed the growing economic boycotts and, eventually, sanctions. Israel’s academic institutions, after all, have been one of the pillars of Israel’s regime of oppression, playing a major role in planning, implementing, justifying, and whitewashing Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people. Isolating those institutions would deprive Israel of a weapon arguably more potent and effective on a day-to-day basis than its entire nuclear arsenal. As the prominent US academic Joan Scott argues, the academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions is an effective way to expose the true nature of Israel’s regime: “The country that claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East is putting in place a brutal apartheid system; its politicians are talking openly about the irrelevance of Arab Israeli votes in elections and developing new methods for testing Arab Israeli loyalty to the Jewish state. Israel’s legal system rests on the inequality of Jewish and non-Jewish citizens; its children are regularly taught that Arab lives are worth less than Jewish lives; its military interferes with Palestinians’ access to university education, freedom of assembly, and the right to free speech; …. The hypocrisy of those who consider these to be democratic practices needs to be exposed. An academic and cultural boycott seems to me to be the way to do this.” Note: The PACBI Guidelines for the International Academic Boycott of Israel are the authoritative guide for academic boycott of Israel.

When there other oppressive regimes around the world, doesn’t the academic boycott single out Israel?

Clearly, this claim is not addressed to Palestinians who are calling for this institutional boycott.  The oppressed, after all, never choose their oppressors; it is the other way around.  Because Israel’s regime and its complicit corporations and institutions are responsible for denying the Palestinian people our rights under international law and because of the failure of the “international community,” under US hegemony, to hold Israel to account, we have called for BDS.  When you are sick with the flu, you naturally must single out the flu for treatment! This charge, however, is often made against western academics and academic associations that support the academic boycott of Israel.  The main response to this is that it is false.  Israeli columnist Larry Derfner, who recognizes that the world displays a “blatant double standard … in Israel’s favor,” argues: “If you look at the serious, painful punishments the world metes out to oppressor nations, Israel is not being singled out, it’s being let off the hook.” In fact, the European Union has imposed sanctions on many countries, including the U.S., Russia, several European states and China, but not on Israel. The unconditional economic, academic, diplomatic, military and other forms of support showered by the US and Europe on Israel singles it out and places it outside the realm of accountability. Derfner argues:  “The Western powers can punish Russia, they can punish China, they can lay in to Iran, Syria, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Sudan and the like – but they won’t touch Israel (the European Union’s wussy “guidelines” notwithstanding). Indeed, the strongest country in the world not only won’t punish Israel for its near half-century of tyranny over the Palestinians, it keeps feeding it arms while shielding it in the UN. America coddles Israel, the world’s last outpost of colonialism, like few countries have ever been coddled by a superpower in history.” This is the main reason why western academics in particular have a moral obligation to support the boycott of Israel, including its complicit academic institutions, to offset the fact that their states use their tax money and silence to maintain Israel’s brutal regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.