Editorial: Trinity must boycott Israeli academia

It is unconscionable for College to maintain links with universities complicit in egregious human rights violations

The recent violence in Palestine was horrifying, but it wasn’t shocking. It marked an escalation in immediate, acute brutality, but was ultimately just a continuation of the systemic, institutionalised violence that Palestinians have been facing on a daily basis for decades.

Commentators often describe the situation as “complex”, but this is a cop-out. More than twenty times as many Palestinians died during the recent conflict as did Israelis. An Israeli fighter pilot freely admitted on TV in the past month that the destruction of residential buildings in Gaza by the military is “a way to vent the army’s frustration”. This is not an issue of two roughly equal sides; Israel is a nuclear-armed power receiving billions in weapons annually from the United States, while fewer than one in ten people in the Gaza Strip have access to clean water.

Many of us have been asking ourselves lately what we can do to help. Luckily, groups of Palestinians such as the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Movement have gotten together to tell us what they think would be most useful, and for universities the answer is straightforward; Trinity, as an organisation and an academic community, must boycott Israeli universities.

There are two important things to note about the BDS Movement. First, it is not a nonspecific expression of anger at Israel in general. It is a nonviolent campaign which aims to exert economic and political pressure on a state which has ignored all other avenues of accountability. It comes with three eminently reasonable demands: Israeli withdrawal from the internationally-recognised Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem, Gaza, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the West Bank; respect for the basic rights of Arab-Israeli citizens; and facilitation of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. Despite the accusations levelled by opponents, the movement does not seek the destruction of Israel or anything like it. Indeed, there is no moral reason to oppose any of its demands.

Second, the need to boycott Israeli universities specifically does not stem from a blanket desire to shun everything even slightly associated with the State of Israel. Instead, the academic boycott is borne from a recognition of how Israeli universities are actively complicit in the government’s human rights violations. The BDS Movement documents the numerous ways in which these institutions participate in the oppression of Palestinians, including partnerships with the Israeli military, developing weapons technologies used against Palestinian civilians, and declarations of support for the actions of the Israeli military by both university administrations and individual academics.

The movement calls for a complete boycott of Israel’s seven universities because of their institutional links to the Israeli government, but explicitly says that it has no problem with Israeli academics as a group. The boycott is a specific one that targets institutions because of their involvement in a system of apartheid, not one against any category of people.

Much of the impetus for a successful boycott will need to come from individual academic staff within Trinity. Academics should refuse to publish in journals based at Israeli institutions, work on projects funded by Israeli institutions or the Israeli government, participate in conferences or events organised by Israeli institutions, or collaborate with academics who are institutional representatives of Israeli universities (by serving as deans, presidents or other university officials). The academic boycott, again despite criticisms levelled against it, places no limits on academic freedom or the ability to conduct vital research. The Academics for Palestine group already includes more than 350 Irish scholars who pledged to participate in such a boycott, including 26 from Trinity. More should follow their example.

Additionally, all Trinity staff need to come together to pressure College to act at an organisational level. Trinity cannot unilaterally order an academic boycott of Israeli institutions by all researchers within its walls, but it maintains institutional links with several Israeli universities which need to be immediately severed.

Both Hebrew University and Bar Ilan University participate in staff and student exchanges with Trinity, and in 2018 Trinity’s Centre for Biblical Studies accepted a €48,000 grant from the Erasmus+ Programme to facilitate such exchanges. This money should be returned immediately, and all these exchanges should cease. Participating in these kinds of partnerships with Trinity is a privilege afforded to only a handful of universities in the world, and if there are to be any standards for such institutions, not being complicit in horrific violence should be the bare minimum. College must also stop holding events in Israel, such as Provost Patrick Prendergast’s visit to Jerusalem in 2018.

Prendergast’s comments about the BDS Movement at the time of his visit indicated a deep ignorance about the nature of the campaign and the extent of the Israeli government’s wrongdoing. Still worse was College’s reaction to Students for Justice in Palestine’s (SJP) protest of the visit of Israeli ambassador Ze’ev Boker in 2017. SJP was fined and Trinity said that Boker was a “regular and welcome visitor”, and described the protest as an “unacceptable attack on free speech”. The irony of issuing this statement while punishing students for holding a protest was apparently lost on College. Hopefully Professor Linda Doyle’s term as Provost will be marked by a greater understanding of and commitment to issues of social justice.

Additionally, Trinity’s endowment fund needs to participate in the economic boycott by divesting from companies which participate in the oppression of Palestinians. College rightly recognised that it has a moral obligation to invest ethically when it pledged to remove fossil fuels from its portfolio. How then can it maintain stakes in companies like BAE Systems and Elbit, both of whom manufacture weapons used against Palestinian civilians?

Finally, as ever, there is a role for Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) to play in this. The union’s pro-BDS mandate is a positive thing, and the circulation of a letter last week encouraging academic boycott was a laudable step. However, the union should not limit its activism to merely participating in marches and politely asking academic staff to do the right thing. College must feel under real and urgent pressure to change its institutional policy towards Israeli universities, and TCDSU must do whatever it takes to apply this pressure; protests, direct action, and continually raising the issue on the boards and councils that sabbats sit on. If College again signals its hostility towards the cause of human rights as it did with Prendergast’s comments in 2018, it should face severe student backlash.

One of the proudest periods in Trinity’s history was when South African civil rights leader Kader Asmal served as a lecturer here and founded the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement. International isolation of the South African government is now recognised as having been a key factor in dismantling that system of oppression. Trinity was on the just side of history then. Why shouldn’t we be now?

This article was updated at 9:33pm on May 24 to correct an error in its description of the bounds of the BDS Movement’s guidelines for the academic boycott. A previous version said that the boycott applies to all academics working at Israeli universities. In fact, the guidelines say that only individuals “representing the state of Israel or a complicit Israeli institution (such as a dean, rector, or president)” are subject to the boycott. Trinity News apologises for the error.