Galia Golan at a rally in Jerusalem in 2017 (Photo/Courtesy Galia Golan)
Galia Golan at a rally in Jerusalem in 2017 (Photo/Courtesy Galia Golan)

Meet Galia Golan: the left-wing Israeli academic who speaks out against BDS

Peace activist Galia Golan has been working for a nonviolent solution to the conflict in Israel for a long time. At 79, the Hebrew University professor emerita is a powerful voice on the left against the Israeli presence in the Palestinian territories and a committed opponent of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But when she comes to the U.S., she ends up in a different debate: defending Israel from the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, especially in her own world of academia.

“The academic boycott is the stupidest one around, because you’re only going to hurt those institutions and those people who are basically the most critical of the negative policies that you want to do away with,” she said in a recent interview while attending the International Studies Association conference in San Francisco. She said calls for such boycotts come up regularly at conferences she attends.

“Who are you trying to silence? Who are you trying to isolate?” she asked.

Academic boycotts weaken the very pro-peace Israeli institutions that academics should be supporting, she said, as they already are under attack by Israel’s right-wing government. As an example, she cited a recent ethics code proposed by the education minister that would, among other things, require universities to monitor political activity by teachers.

Golan doesn’t mince words talking about the political challenges in Israel and why the BDS movement has gained momentum.

“To rule over another people is wrong,” she said. “To deny them their rights is wrong.” But BDS, she said, isn’t helping. She calls blanket sanctions counterproductive, leading to a “rally ’round the flag” mentality and convincing Israelis that everyone is against them. In addition, she acknowledged that the rhetoric of BDS, especially in Europe, often verges on anti-Semitism. But even so, she believes some of the criticism is legitimate.

The young progressive Jews on campus have to hear our voices.

“As much as I feel disproportionately attacked, it doesn’t mean the content isn’t correct,” she said. “What we’re doing is wrong.”

Though she doesn’t support the tactics of the BDS movement, she does think targeted sanctions might do some good.

“Maybe it would make a difference if certain companies pull out from investing in the settlements or selling to the settlements,” she said.

The author of “Israeli Peacemaking Since 1967” and numerous other books was a longtime member of the Israeli organization Peace Now and a founder of the feminist Israeli-Palestinian group Bat Shalom. She is also on the steering committee of Combatants for Peace, a nonviolence group.

Golan was born in Cincinnati and moved to Israel in 1966. She received a doctorate at Hebrew University, where she eventually chaired the political science department and headed centers for Soviet studies and women’s studies. She also founded the Diplomacy and Conflict Studies program at IDC Herzliya.

Being an anti-occupation Zionist who supports limited sanctions is not a popular position in the U.S. at the moment — and Golan knows that. But she’s willing to be visible.

“I think the progressive Jews, the young progressive Jews on campus, have to hear our voices,” she said about the Israeli peace movement. “Because we’re there, we’re living there, it’s us. And there’s no way that you can say that ‘this is anti-Semitism,’ there’s no way you can say ‘this is disproportionate’ if I’m saying it.”

Golan is moved almost to tears when thinking about how far Israel’s current politics are from the ideals expressed when she first moved there as a young woman. But she hopes that sharing her views will show young people in the U.S. and Europe that it’s possible to stay connected to Israel without sanctioning its government policies or compromising their values.

“I really believe that mine is a pro-Israel position,” she said. “I mean, I believe that as deeply as possible — not just slogans.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.