Italian scholars boycott Israeli academic institutions

Signatories accuse universities of being complicit with Israel’s state violence and human rights violations.

BDS Movement supporters rally near Armistice Agreement Line
The BDS movement is a Palestinian-led campaign that calls for economic and political pressure on Israel to give equal rights to its Palestinian citizens [EPA]

A group of Italian professors and researchers are planning to boycott Israeli academic institutions, saying the schools are complicit in “violations of international law and human rights”.

Some 170 scholars from more than 50 Italian universities and research organisations have signed a pledge committing to the boycott. The signatories described themselves as “a solid critical block of scholars” who were “no longer willing to tolerate Israeli academic complicity with Israel’s state violence”.

“The utter lack of any serious condemnation on their part since the foundation of the state of Israel led to the initiative,” the authors said in a statement.

The academics – who teach and work at prominent universities, including the University of Bologna, the University of Rome and the University of Milan – noted that they were part of a growing global trend of scholars taking a stand for Palestinian rights.

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“I think it is important that members of the Italian academia have joined the international boycott, because this is a sign that even in Italy, the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement is becoming mainstream,” Federico Zanettin, an associate professor of English and translation at the University of Perugia, told Al Jazeera.

The BDS movement is a Palestinian-led campaign that calls for economic and political pressure on Israel to give equal rights to its Palestinian citizens, and to end its occupation of Palestinian and other Arab territories, including the Syrian Golan Heights.

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“The BDS movement brings back the real meaning and value to the notions of political agency and collective actions,” Alaa Tartir, programmes director at al-Shabaka Palestinian Policy Network, told Al Jazeera. “[The] reality of popular ownership to one of the tools for the self-determination struggle, is a key factor that explains the success, legitimacy and influential role of BDS.”

Tartir pointed to the spread of boycotts on campuses across Europe and the United States as evidence of the movement’s growing success.

“This is how the relationship between the occupied and the occupier should be: a relationship based on continuous confrontation to realise rights,” he said. “This is why it constitutes a major source of hope for Palestinians at home and in exile.”

Late last year, more than 300 academics from dozens of British universities pledged to boycott Israeli academic institutions to protest against what they called “intolerable human rights violations” against the Palestinian people. This came after a group of writers and academics, among them the renowned author JK Rowling, criticised boycotts that “singl[ed] out Israel” as “divisive and discriminatory”.

It was clear at that point that all my concerns about academic freedom simply could not be prioritised over the rights of the Palestinian people.

by Francesca Biancani, adjunct professor at Bologna University

Italy’s boycott proponents have also faced some resistance at home over the years. Italian author Umberto Eco criticised a cultural boycott of Israel at the 25th Jerusalem Book Fair in 2011. Eco, one of Italy’s most celebrated authors, said: “I consider it absolutely crazy and fundamentally racist to identify a scholar, a private citizen, with the politics of his government.”

In Israel, the Association of University Heads condemned the BDS initiative, calling it “an aggressive global anti-Israel campaign, orchestrated by a fringe interest group, who for several years has supported the spreading of demonic lies against the State of Israel.

“Over the past several years, the BDS movement has been leading a hate campaign on academic, political and economic fronts, in order to incite hatred towards Israel,” the association said in a statement to Al Jazeera. “[Such] ideas have no place in academia. Academic boycotts clearly contradict both academic ethos and values and contaminate academic collaborations and international research overall.”

The association added: “It is both ironic and absurd that specifically those supporting such boycotts are using politics in an attempt to incite and introduce hatred and racism into the Israeli academia. With these actions, they are attempting to create a division where one does not exist.”

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The signatories say the initiative is particularly significant because of the special relationship between Israel and Italy.

“Italy [is] one of Israel’s key military and academic partners in Europe,” the declaration noted. “A military cooperation agreement between the two countries provides for joint military research, training exercises and development of weapons systems.”

In March, the Italian Society for Middle Eastern Studies will host a panel discussion on the general implications of academic and cultural boycott campaigns against Israel during its annual conference in Catania. This will mark the first time an academic association in Italy has publicly debated the Palestinian call for BDS.


Simona Taliani, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Turin, said Italian academics had just started to become engaged in boycott efforts.

“The campaign is important because it better informs academics in Italy,” Taliani told Al Jazeera. “It’s so urgent to let people [become] aware of the complicity of Israeli universities in military investments and the repressive system against Palestinians.”

According to the signatories, the declaration also serves to support Palestinian scholars who “experience grave human rights violations and denial of their basic academic freedoms.” The initiative, however, does allow for individual collaborations with Israeli peers.

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The boycott focuses specifically on the Haifa-based Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, which has developed technologies that have been employed by the Israeli military such as remote-controlled bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian houses.

Some of Italy’s largest universities have collaborated with Technion, “which develops dangerous technologies for the systematic… colonisation of Palestine”, Gabriele Usberti, a professor at the University of Siena, told Al Jazeera.

The signatories to the boycott pledge said that a number of Italian universities had cooperation agreements with Technion, including the Polytechnic Universities of Milano and Turin, and the universities of Cagliari, Florence, Perugia, Rome and Turin. A spokesman for Technion declined to comment on the allegations pertaining to the institute, and referred Al Jazeera to the Association of University Heads.

For some of the signatories, the decision to take part was not easy. Francesca Biancani, an adjunct professor at Bologna University, said she decided to heed the call for a boycott after a “complex and at times painful process” and “long consideration”, following 15 years of visits to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

“Episodes of racist comments made by academics, and measures approved by academic institutions – Tel Aviv University for one – to financially support students serving in the army in those days hit the bottom line in my view,” Biancani told Al Jazeera.

“It was clear at that point that all my concerns about academic freedom simply could not be prioritised over the rights of the Palestinian people.”

Source: Al Jazeera