Bless/Baruch Kimmerling – an obituary and response to the 2003 academic boycott of Israel

Baruch Kimmerling, Israeli academic at HUJI, “New Sociologist”, post-colonialist irritant to the Israeli establishment, died aged 67 after a battle with cancer.

I found this out when I tried to contact him with some questions about the boycott – an autoreply came back quickly containing the bare message “Baruch Kimmerling died on May 20, 2007”. The Haaretz obituary is bald, but Occupation Magazine has one.

But looking through his work I found a 2003  paper he wrote for Borderlands on the subject of that year’s campaign for a boycott. In the following excerpt he discusses the Israeli academy as fostering and amplifying dissenting voices, and pledges to refuse to cooperate with any institution which operates a boycott, whether or not he is personally exempt.

“… In Israel today, the mass media are generally chauvinistic and unwilling to challenge the Sharon government. Dissenting journalists like Amira Hass and Gideon Levy, who document the daily afflictions and human rights violations suffered by the Palestinian population, are subjected to petition drives designed to pressure the country’s most liberal private newspaper to stop publishing their work. In this repressive climate, the Israeli academy remains the last bastion of free thought and free speech. Most humanistic, dissident voices in Israel originate in the academy or are supported by faculty members.

5. This is not to say that all the members of the Israeli academy are great humanists or support the idea of self-determination of the Palestinian people. We are a highly heterogeneous community, as is true in any other fine academic environment. Some of us are highly active in ethnocentric groups, other (perhaps the majority) alienated from any public or intellectual activities, while a small but salient minority (of which Prof. Reinhart is a prominent member) are very active and highly committed to the humanization and democratization of various aspects of the Israeli society. However, the most important feature of this community is that so far, in spite of the deep cleavages among us, we have found a way to co-exist each with the other and to conduct spirited dialogs among ourselves and with the world outside the ivory tower – under the umbrella of academic freedom I also think we, the Israeli academy, have stood fast in a time of crisis and have conducted ourselves more credibly than the British academy (while the British government was engaging in acts of brutality against the Irish-Catholics, during the Falkland/Malvinas war, or throughout the long Thatcher regime) , or the patriotic American academy (during the current war against Afghanistan, the McCarthy-era witch hunts, or even during most phases of the Korean and Vietnam wars). Yet I have never heard of any calls to boycott either the British or American academies. As for the cause celebre of the “successful” boycott of the South African academy, it is well known that it mainly damaged the progressive forces within South Africa and probably hindered its democratization process. As sociologists, the Roses have to know the inner dynamics of communities under siege.

6. My friend Elia Zureik suggested that the boycott should be only institutional but not personal. Very kindly and generously, he has offered to cooperate with me, (presuming I’m on his personal list of “good guys”) but to boycott my institution, the Hebrew University. Self-evidently it is his right to boycott every institution or person he want to, but he must realize that if his call to freeze funds to my institution is effective, the resulting constraints on research and conferences will also hurt “good guys” like me. Moreover, the very idea of making selections among members of the academy is a horrifying idea and I hereby pledge not to cooperate with any institution or person who will make such selections, even if I myself am ruled acceptable by them. Selections made on the basis of non-academic criteria endanger academic freedom.”

He goes on to say that Israeli academics have not done all they could to stand up for their Palestinian counterparts in the face of deplorable disruption and destruction of Palestinian institution. However:

“… I have less understanding for my Israeli colleagues who are asking to be boycotted. I don’t condemn them as our “trade union” did, because they are fully entitled to express their opinions and to try to convince us of their correctness. Moreover, they and I have the common goal of democratizing and de-colonizing Israeli society. The only divergence between us, beside the very meaning of the academy, is that, should their call be taken seriously it would weaken our common academic autonomy and freedom – the precise goal of our adversaries – and ultimately have catastrophic consequences for our common struggle. “

Baruch Kimmerling.

Kimmerling, B (2003) The meaning of academic boycott. Borderlands 2 (3). Available from http://www.borderlandsejournal.adelaide.edu.au/vol2no3_2003/kimmerling_meaning.htm.

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