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Chomsky’s Boycott

By Semra E. Sevi

Israeli academics, having led the way in the fields of biomedical, semiconductor, and weapons technologies, have much to provide the world.

However, the ensuing conflict between Israel and Palestine has impeded this development. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel has been an extremely contentious issue on campuses around the world. Its supporters see the campaign as an effective means of pressuring Israel to uphold international law. On the other hand, its critics see it as rife with double standards and as a counterproductive approach to resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Attempting to censor and silence the dialogue is never the answer. Only an open exchange of ideas from all academics will lead to a true understanding and, ultimately, a resolution. There is always hope in education.

Boycotts of researchers or research institutions contravene the purpose of academia, which is deeply rooted on the freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech.

Recently, I coproduced an interview with Noam Chomsky for TVOntario, in which he discussed the Middle East, America’s foreign policy, and the BDS campaign. In that interview, when asked if he supported BDS, Chomsky stated that he is unconvinced of the tactic.

“I would not support an academic boycott. I did not even support them on South Africa, apart from specific racist practices, like hiring,” said Chomsky.

In correspondences with Chomsky, he elucidated his stance on the issue, “I have always been skeptical about academic boycotts. There may be overriding reasons, but in general I think that those channels should be kept open.”

Supporters of the academic boycott argue that Israeli academics cannot exempt themselves from a boycott on the grounds of academic freedom while they fail to speak up for the academic freedom of Palestinians. To this I say, it does not make it right to censor an academic just because they do not shed light to the Palestinian plight. It truly is unfortunate that Palestinians are denied education, and I wish we could change that, but students in many places are denied education. And if we boycott Israel it does not end there. Why not boycott the whole world? Simply because you cannot. Why, then, should the Palestinian cause be more important?

Chomsky has been directly connected to BDS from its roots, signing a controversial Harvard-MIT petition in 2002, which he agreed with in principle. It called for making U.S. government aid conditional on dismantling settlements, the divestment of Harvard and MIT assets from U.S. companies that sell weapons to Israel, and the divestment from Israel all together. However, Chomsky was against the last tactic, which called for divestment from Israel.

“There's not much to say. I've been involved in BDS activities since long before the term was invented. It's a tactic, not a principle. Like any tactic, one has to evaluate particular proposals. Some are fine, some counterproductive,” stated Chomsky.

Former Harvard University president and Director of the National Economic Council Lawrence H. Summers’s sentiment regarding the academic boycott of Israel was resounding, “I found it shocking and deeply troubling that a substantial group of faculty members at major universities would propose seriously, and indeed seek to pressure, for universities like Harvard to sell, to divest, any stock, any company that did any business with Israel. It seemed to me that such a boycott that singled out Israel was profoundly misguided.”

When asked about boycotts in general, Chomsky asked, “Why boycott Israel and not boycott the United States? The U.S. has a much worse record. Apart from Israel, the United States is by far the world’s major arm supplier.”

In specific to academic boycotts, Chomsky iterated that, “Harvard University has always been deeply implicated in implementing U.S. foreign policy, from providing the leading personnel for major war crimes (Bundy, Kissinger, etc.) to the activities carried out in the [Kennedy] Government School, and much else. These vastly exceed University of Tel Aviv’s contributions to war crimes – quite apart from the fact that Israeli crimes are in fact US crimes, a tiny fraction of them.”

“Bundy and Kissinger are two of the major war criminals of the modern era. There is a long list of others. The [Kennedy] Government School is utterly outlandish. Among its more ‘benign’ activities is having the head of the [Carr] Human Rights Center, [Sarah Sewell], write the introduction for David Petraeus’s famous [military] counterinsurgency manual.”

Universities are probably the least malign of all the actors in this conflict. “If we want to boycott those directly involved in atrocities let us go after the corporate system, the governments, and the citizens who pay taxes, etc.,” said Chomsky

“Academic institutions are among the least of the participants, and they offer some of the best hope for confronting these crimes. However, they’re not above the fray by any means.”

Chomsky, one of the many staunch supporters of Palestine is still fighting, having turned 82 today. When asked if the fire still burns inside of him at his age, he responded with a resounding yes.

Semra E. Sevi, a staff writer at The Varsity, is a political science concentrator at the University of Toronto.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the Nov. 15 comment "Living At Gunpoint" referred to "semi-automatic machine guns" and implied that they are legal to purchase in the United States. In fact, the term semi-automatic machine gun is incorrect; semi-automatic rifles are legal to purchase. The Crimson regrets the error.

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