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PACBI-PACBI calls for Boycott of the International Geographical Union's Regional Conference in Tel Aviv

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PACBI | 8 November 2009

PACBI calls for Boycott of the International Geographical Union's Regional Conference in Tel Aviv

PACBI issued an Open Letter on 29 October 2009 Urging the Executive Committee of the International Geographical Union (IGU) to relocate its upcoming regional conference (July 2010) out of Israel.  That demand has been rejected by the IGU Executive.  PACBI is now calling upon all geographers to boycott this conference.  The exchange between PACBI and the IGU President is below:


8 November 2009

PACBI to IGU Executive:

Thank you for taking the time to respond to PACBI’s appeal to the IGU to relocate the upcoming IGU Regional Conference out of Israel. We would like to take this opportunity to engage with some of the points you raise in your letter:

You note that since the 2000 meeting in Seoul, the “advisability and wisdom of holding the regional conference in Tel Aviv have been discussed within the IGU at various times.”  This ongoing discussion is in itself indicative of the fact that Israel is not regarded as a neutral venue for convening an international conference of scholars.  The reasons for this are many, as you well know.

Israel’s violent history and ongoing practices of dispossessing the Palestinian people are singularly significant in determining how the state should be viewed and treated.  Most importantly, it is obvious that decades of diplomacy, peace initiatives, and efforts on the part of international human rights organizations and movements have been utterly ineffectual in bringing about justice for Palestinians.  Israel acts with impunity, flouting international law, and is shielded from censure at every turn by the hegemonic world powers, led by the United States and some European states.  This is why at this juncture, and inspired by the struggle of the people of South Africa against apartheid, Palestinian civil society is leading a global movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) as the most effective means to exert pressure upon Israel to respect international law and not act above the law.

As such, the BDS movement targets major institutions and arenas of the Israeli state.  Academic institutions, which are implicated in the structures of domination in myriad ways both historically and in the present, are not only not exempt from acts of censure but bear a particular responsibility for the continuing dispossession of the Palestinian people.  Two recent reports outline the close cooperation between the Israeli academy and the defense establishment and other state agencies [1].

We believe that your argument that boycott forecloses debate with Israeli geographers, as well as your invitation to Palestinian academics to attend the Tel Aviv conference, miss the point. The academic and cultural boycott that PACBI advocates is institutional and not directed at individuals.  Palestinian academics do not shy away from confronting Israeli academics at international conferences, nor do they avoid responding to Israeli claims and arguments in defense of the apartheid regime in other public forums such as scholarly journals and the media.  The relevant issue here is that the conference is being hosted by the Israeli academic establishment, to which certainly the Israeli National Commission for Geography (under the auspices of the Israeli Academy of Sciences) belongs.

Concerning the potential for an academic boycott to alienate Israeli academics sympathetic to or in support of Palestinian rights, we would like to state that the situation has become so intolerable that even some members of the Israeli academy are asking the international academic community to boycott it.  We may also add that the boycott call has allowed us to engage not only with the few Israeli academics who are considered extremists within their society, but also and more importantly, with the broader Israeli academic public which has come under pressure from the rest of the world.  This new form of engagement is based on the proper terms in the sense that the debate is now between colonizers and the colonized, without normalizing Israel‘s image in the rest of the world.

Israeli academic institutions and bodies have never taken a stand against the state’s policies and practices against the Palestinian people.  No body of academics, no university senate, no association of universities, has ever condemned or even protested the long-standing siege of Palestinian higher education, for example.  Aside from the principled solidarity of a small number of Israeli academics, there has been a deafening silence emanating from the Israeli academy, not only about the trampling of the rights of Palestinian academics and students, but the dispossession of a people.  Instead, the Israeli academy carries on its business as usual.

It is no surprise that the Israeli geographical establishment wished that Israel should host the next regional conference of the IGU; what better way to gain international legitimacy for Israeli geography and for Israel as a state that promotes science and scholarship?  As we pointed out in our open letter to the IGU, the Israeli geographical establishment in particular is deeply implicated in and complicit with state policies of ethnic cleansing, apartheid regional planning, land confiscation, the theft of land and other natural resources and the Zionist settlement drive in general.  We believe it is the moral responsibility of academics, including geographers, to behave ethically. This responsibility obliges them to examine their profession and its institutions and to ensure that they do not promote racism, discrimination, and oppression. Instead, the geographical establishment remains silent.

Opponents of the academic boycott have alleged that boycotts violate or compromise academic freedom.  We do not believe that academic freedom should be considered sacrosanct when other, more basic freedoms, are denied to a people.  In particular, we do not believe that safeguarding the academic freedom of Israelis is more important than that of Palestinian academics.  In fact, the academic freedom that is being fiercely defended by supporters of Israel is the unfettered freedom of Israeli academics and their institutions to gain access to research funds and all the other benefits and privileges of membership in the world academy.  That sense of impunity, that no matter what Israel does, life in the academy has to go on, must be shattered.  Only when Israeli academics—as other Israelis—realize that there is a price to be paid for the normalcy that they enjoy, will there be a chance for realizing justice.  Unless Israelis feel the pressure from the BDS movement of world citizens, they will not be propelled into action to bring about a radical change in the status quo.

In this regard, we would like to note that your point about discrimination based on race, ethnic group affiliation, citizenship, religion, sex or political opinion is not relevant here. Israel is targeted because it is a racist and discriminatory state, as its practices—embodied in legislation and state policy--demonstrate.  As was the case in Apartheid South Africa, the only way to bring it to comply with internationally recognized standards of conduct is by pressuring it, since as a privileged oppressor, it will not relinquish power without this collective pressure from international civil society, and we hope with time,  from states.

We shall call for a boycott of the regional conference in Tel Aviv, and urge geographers the world over to shun the racist apartheid state and its academic establishment.

Since you appear to have blind copied a number of individuals on your letter to us, we shall assume that your letter and this response can be made public as well.




5 November 2009
IGU President to PACBI

I became aware of the PACBI Open Letter to the International
Geographical Union (IGU) Executive Committee on the morning of 30
October 2009 when I read it on a listserve to which I subscribe. I
immediately transmitted the letter to the other members of the executive
committee for their comments, which are incorporated in this response.

As background to the IGU response it may be helpful to understand that
the IGU General Assembly approved Tel Aviv as the site for an IGU
Regional Conference nine years ago at its 2000 quadrennial meeting in
Seoul, at the same time that the Assembly selected Tunis as the site for
the IGU‘s 2008 International Geographical Congress. Since 2000, the
advisability and wisdom of holding the regional conference in Tel Aviv
have been discussed within the IGU at various times, but neither the IGU
General Assembly (the higher authority) nor the IGU Executive Committee
has wavered from its intention that a regional conference be held in Tel

At this late date, there is no possibility of cancelling or moving the
July 2010 Tel Aviv conference nor, more importantly, is there any wish
to do so on the part of the IGU Executive Committee. We are morally and
possibly financially bound to honor the commitment the IGU made to its
colleagues in Israel when it accepted their 2000 invitation to hold a
meeting in Tel Aviv.

In common with many other international scientific organizations, the
IGU specifically recognizes its members‘ status as scientific
communities, not as political entities:

Membership of the Union shall be by countries. For this purpose a
"country" shall be a territory wherein scientific matters are organized
independently. Admission of a country to membership of the Union shall
not constitute recognition of its political but only of its scientific
status. (IGU Statutes Article II, Section A)

Accordingly, the IGU recognizes the Israeli community of geographers as
the IGU member, not the past, current, or any future Israeli government;
the same holds true for all of the IGU‘s member "countries." 

The IGU‘s Statutes also proscribe discrimination and boycotts in a
provision the IGU Executive Committee strongly supports:

There shall be no discrimination as regards race, ethnic group,
citizenship, religion, sex or political opinion within the Union or in
the meetings organized by it or held on its behalf. (Article VIII,
Section D).


As a member of ICSU [the International Council for Science], the IGU
follows ICSU guidelines on the free circulation of scientists (IGU
Statutes Article VIII, Section E).

Those guidelines clearly proscribe boycotts as inimical to the sound
practice of science. (ICSU Committee on Freedom and Responsibility in
the Conduct of Science of the International Council for Science.
Freedom, Responsibility and Universality of Science (Paris: ICSU, 2008. ).The Tel
Aviv conference Local Organizing Committee has complied fully and
wholeheartedly with IGU and ICSU guidelines for the organization of open
and accessible meetings. The IGU would dishonor itself were it not to
honor the Local Committee‘s commitment to international science.

With due respect for the conditions that motivated PACBI to call upon
IGU to boycott its Israeli colleagues in the specific instance of the
2010 IGU Regional Conference as well as more generally, we are firmly
convinced that the most effective way to resolve policy and political
differences allegedly justified by science is through direct and open
confrontation of the conflicting ideas and their proponents. Boycotts
foreclose that option. If effective, a boycott silences those with whom
PACBI disagrees, but the same action silences those who espouse all or
some of the PACBI‘s goals. If the IGU were to accede to the PACBI‘s
request it might in some largely symbolic sense punish the individual
Israeli geographers that PACBI condemns, but we would simultaneously
delegitimize and demoralize the many geographers in Israel who support
Palestinian positions. The Israeli geographical community is an open and
vigorous one in which the geographical dimensions of Israeli-Palestinian
issues are hotly debated. We believe that debate must continue in the
best interests of international science and in hopes of finding a
mutually acceptable resolution of this chronic conflict.

To that end, the IGU Executive Committee will sponsor at the Tel Aviv
conference a session focused on the issues of practicing science
ethically and responsibly in situations of military and political
conflict. We invite the PACBI to send a representative to speak to those
issues in that session, and we are willing to make a significant
contribution to the costs of that representative‘s participation in the
conference. We further call upon Palestinian geographers to present
their views on the geographical dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict at the IGU Tel Aviv conference, side by side with those of
Israeli and other scholars.

While this reply is not the outcome your open letter sought, we hope you
will find it a reasonable and forthright response based on the
circumstances under which the IGU selected Tel Aviv for its conference
and on the reality of the PACBI‘s and the IGU‘s differences over how
best to conduct international science amidst international conflict.
Ronald F. Abler

Posted on 09-11-2009

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