My thoughts on Boycotts, divestitures, right to defend one self etc

Richard Wilson
originally written June 25th 2011

most recent modification June 20th 2015

These notes are written and attached to my website (blog) because my actions and reports have been misquoted.


In general I do not often sign general petitions. Often the petition asks for too much, or asks for the wrong things and is not sent to the best people. I prefer to send individual letters to people who may be influenced.  When a petition is sent by others who ask me to join them, I often send my own letter  with my own modified wording.

Letters suggested by Amnesty International

In the 1980s I joined a group in Amnesty International.  I sent letters on behalf of individuals that had been brought to Amnesty's attention. I would send my own letter not always following Amnesty's suggestion and often to additional individuals who I knew. An example was a letter on behalf of a Professor in Pakistan which I sent, about 1980, to the Minister of Education Dr Mahomed Afzal. Dr Afzal personally intervened. There are many other situations.   In 1979 I brought the situation of Dr Hussein Sharistani to the attention of Amnesty International and personally asked to see him when I visited Iraq over the New year in 1982-3.

Personal discussions

My first discussions on freedom of expression were in 1967 when 4 Russians, Blokhintsev, Dzelepov, Nikitin and Okun visited the US. They were fairly open in discussion of the problems they were facing. My next contacts were in 1959 at the Kiev meeting on high energy physics. I talked to many people. Always 1 on 1 and in a park away from microphones. My scientist friends were all clear: they wanted liberalization. The only one that took action immediately after the "destalinization" was Dr Yuri Orlov who I met in 1964 and was in trouble for speaking out. His Moscow boss Dr Alikhanov asked his brother Dr Alikhanian to find him a job in Armenia. In 1965 I met Dr Sergei Kapitza and his father Dr Pietr Kapitza and discussed these matters with them.   Later, in 1979 I met Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner who of course are better known in these matters.


  Boycotts are a procedure whereby a group can firmly force their opinion on an authority which is not listening.   Again boycotts historically have been local and the extent to which they can and should be used in international situations is hotly debated.   I have participated in one major Boycott - of USSR scientists when Orlov and Sharansky were sentenced - and I was asked to Boycott in others.  But I have been misquoted.  That led to my discussing boycotts in some detail. Whether I have signed, or declined to sign, I have often been misquoted. A more detailed discussion of boycotts etc. is therefore appropriate. 

                                                          I note that for a boycott to be ethical and also to work:
(1)  the person or organization boycotting must lose something  as he/she boycotts. Boycotting USSR in the late  1970s and early 1980s worked for this reason..   Soviet scientists spoke out in the Soviet Academy of Scientists.
(2)  The person or organization being boycotted must  have some influence on the his peers and persuade them that being boycotted is to be avoided.
(3)  In general any boycott is imposed from outside, but interestingly the cries to boycott Israel come from inside.  10 years ago there were three Israeli academics ASKING TO BE BOYCOTTED.  One, Avnery has written extensively about the problem and  two others were found jobs outside Israel.  In July 2014 there were 80 academics in Israeli Universities demanding that the Israeli government change its policy in a similar way to those demanding a boycott. Avnery's views should be read by everon.

(   Why does not the US government and people pay attention to  this unprecedented  request to be boycotted?.
(4)   We also note that the rectors of about 128 Turkish Universities and colleges have called (in August 2014)
for similar actions. This is important because Turkey was an important trading partner of Israel.

I believe that it is important to call for boycotts only when one is personally prepared for a sacrifice. After Yuri Orlov and Anatole (now Natan) Sharansky were arrested I joined a group of scientists boycotting the Soviet Union. . I agreed not to invite any Soviet scientist to my laboratory or visit the USSR till they were released. I know of many scientists who joined that group in name only and either never had any intention of meeting Soviet scientists or were prepared to ignore the promises they had made. I did not ignore my promises. When I meet Dr Vladimir Nazarenko at a conference at BNL he asked if he could come up and visit at Harvard. I said that I had promised NOT to invite him.   I declined to go to the High Energy Conference in Tblisi in 1976. I did violate the letter of my promise in 1979 when I was invited by Lobashov to visit him in Gatchina, Leningrad. Andree came with me. But I salved my conscience by taking journals for refuseniks who were no longer allowed access to scientific and by visiting the refuseniks. We also visited Andrei Sakharov and his second wife Elena Bonner in their Moscow apartment. 

 I remember discussing the boycott of South Africa with Edwin Land, President of Polaroid. He was inclined to boycott South Africa and close the Polaroid operation there. But he also believed in workers rights and agreed to abide by the vote of the workers in Polaroid. The workers in the  Polaroid company voted  not to boycott and Edwin Land quietly took the heat.


There was never a question of divestiture from the USSR because we had no investments there. But I did support publicly a call for Harvard University to divest itself from investments in South Africa. I also joined a call to divest from any tobacco or related companies.

In about 2000 there was strong pressure to join a group calling for Harvard University to divest itself from investments in Israel. I declined at first but signed when:

(i) the petition had been modified to state explicitly that it would only be until Israel agreed to meet certain definite obligations in the UN which Israel had freely signed and:

(ii) when I noted that the fraction of Jews in Harvard who signed the petition was greater than the fraction of Jews in the Harvard faculty. Like other gentiles I am reluctant to discuss something of such great emotional importance without support.

Refusal to sign a boycott petition

Over the last 10 years there has been pressure on US academics to sign a petition to boycott Israeli academics and universities. I have discussed them with my colleagues. The first question is why and under what conditions would the boycott end? The petition suffered from too much generality. Some proponents wanted a return to the pre-1947 political situation. That I do not support. I do, however support the idea that the default position of the UN resolution 242, that the division between Israel and Palestine should be the "green line" - the armistice line on 1948. I oppose the "separation wall" along a far less defensible line. Indeed it is the official US government position repeated recently by President Obama, that this is the default position with agreed land swaps. As noted in this website, this was opposed by Arab governments until 2001 when in a historic declaration, studiously ignored by Israel, Arab countries unanimously accepted it. I support this official US position wholeheartedly.    Since writing the above I note that on Tuesday June 28th 2011 there was a full page advertisement in the New York Times by a Jewish group supporting a two state solution with a similar starting point.  

Unfortunately the intransigent attitude of Mr Netanyahu and others is steadily making a two state solution more difficult to achieve. In recent years this call for a boycott had an interesting facet. It was supported by two Israeli historians of my acquaintance and a well known Israeli dissident. It is the only situation where someone was asking to be boycotted. This demands attention. One argument is that the Universities, including both teaching and research, is so closely tied to the government that only a boycott will influence the Israeli government. Maybe. But I doubt whether it is a sensible way of doing so. I was forced to reconsider my joining of Scientists for Orlov and Sharansky. Was I right in so doing? In that case no scientists was asking to be boycotte but the boycott had some effect. At least one member of the academy, pointed out in a meeting of the Soviet Academy of Sciences that it was hindering their scientific work. Was this a reason for the ultimate collapse of the Soviet system? Maybe it contributed. But the situation in Israel is different. My view, expressed frequently in the last 40 years is that the future lies with American Jews and the influence they have on the government of Israel. They are unlikely be influenced by a boycott.

My hopes in 1945 for a generous and forgiving  Israel.

As As noted in my memoirs I was well aware of the oppression of the Jewish people when I was a boy.   When our school was evacuated to Crowthorne, during the war,  and particularly between 1940-1943,  I met many Jewish refugees from Germany.   The holocaust was underway.  My best friend at the time, Klaus Roth, was a refugee from Breslau in East Germany, now Wroclaw in Poland.   He had walked across the mountains to neighboring Czechslovakia At school we read the merchant of Venice, and I had sympathy with the money lender who made what is now called an absurd loan (guaranteed by a pound of flesh) more than than the stupid merchant who came off scot free. I of course agree with the standard view that Portia represented mercy.   I talked a lot with these refugees.  My memory is that only one out of about 30 had any desire to be part of a Jewish state;   the others wanted to be accepted as British subjects equal to all others.  I was strongly socialist in my leanings and supported the immediate postwar government of Clement Attlee.  Ernest Bevin, a former trade’s union leader and strong anti communist, became Foreign Minister.   To him fell the task of considering the aim of many Jews to form a Jewish state.  The League of Nations mandate of  Palestine came to an end in 1948 and Bevin was urging that Britain was prepared to hand over control to the people living there in a unitary state.   That seemed sensible to me. 

 B    But I had little doubt that Jews in that state would have dominated their government  more than their proportion in the population would suggest. 
    I noted that
Jews over the centuries were always keen on education.   More so than gentiles.
    Jews were not allowed to own land so they developed "portable" skills,  which had become very important to everyone after the industrial revolution. 
    The Jewish people had suffered greatly during the centuries and, as a Unitarian, I did not believe in the collective guilt for  their behavior toward  Jesus of Nazareth and did not believe Jewish people would believe in the collective guilt of Palestinians
     I believed that the Jewish people EVERYWHERE would not, and by their traditions could not wreak vengeance on the Palestinians for the anti-semitic behavior of others:  Russians, Turks and of course Nazis.  This seemed impossible to me.   Why did not the Israeli government lead its people into the ways of forgiveness?

A       Alas,   over the years I have been proven wrong by events.   My first disillusionment was the murder of the UN representative Count Bernadotte.   That this was don.e by Isrealis is now admitted by Israel but I unequivocally reject their justification and the leader of the murderous group, Shamir, was twice elected prime minister of Israel.
    Next came the hatred by so many Jews of Ernest Bevin.  Bevin was a plain-spoken man but not anti-semitic - though he became anti-zionist.  (Zionism is here defined as someone following the suggestions of Theodore Herzl including the last page).
    When in 1947 President Truman was pressing Britain to accept all displaced persons to Palestine after the war Bevin told a labour party meeting that America would not admit Jews who applied to the USA because they did not want too many in New York - a statement that was almost certainly correct but infuriated many.  This seems strange today but is noted in detail by the Iraqi foreign Minister Fadhel Jamali.  Truman had commented that in the next election more Jews would vote for him than arabs.   Such statements were (later) made to me by many US Jews including one who had walked in 1944-1945 from Latvia to a refugee camp in France and later joined the staff of the Harvard physics department.   For his words Bevin was blamed particularly by Zionists.   But Britain depended on US economic support after the war and had to yield to US pressure. on Palestine policy.  

The Attlee government publicly declared in February 1947 that the British Mandate in Palestine had become "unworkable".  Bevin duly negotiated the Portsmouth Treaty on 15th January  1948 which according to the then Iraqi foreign minister Fadhel Jamali was soon ignored by the Israeli government
On December 4th 1948, A prominent group of American Jews intellectuals wrote to the  NY-Times  warning the American people about the behavior of the "Freedom Party" started by Begin.   ( Letter Warning Of Zionist Facism In Israel.html).    I was only 22 years old and still in the UK.  But I found a copy of the article and read it. The warning was not heeded by US Jews generally nor those Jews in in the Holy Land who elected Begin as Prime Minister anyway.

I was very disappointed in 1969 that Israel did not accept UN resolution 242  This had given them 80% of the historical land of Palestine from the sea to the Jordan river– much more than the 50% recommended by the UN in 1947.  I sent to the Israeli leaders and to every Israeli leader since then that I saw and still see 4 possibilities.

  1. giving citizenship with equal rights to all people within the territory claimed
  2. Allowing at once an independent Palestinian State within the territory within the land left by UN resolution 242
  3. Forcible removal of all Palestinians from all territory that Israel claimed and claims.
  4. Acceptance of the status quo.   I argued and still argue that (4) is the worst of all solutions.
    The status quo is even worse than I had thought in 1967.   It has become more and more clear that following this route hands control to the extreme groups on both sides, with awful conclusions for the future.   

    I note that the 1973 war began after Egypt had asked UN troops to leave its territory.  The war was started by Israel.   In 1973 the US ship LIBERTY was attacked and almost sunk while in international waters.   I did not, in 1973 believe that the attack was deliberate  -  merely that the Israel air force was trigger happy.  But the story of the LIBERTY released by the US some 25 years later (link)  shows otherwise.  I was deeply disappointed. in early 1970 Lebanon had allowed Palestinian refugees to occupy two refugee camps - Sabra and Shatila - in Beirut.   In 1982 Begin had ordered Israeli troops to surround the camp – an area no larger than Harvard Yard, while phalangists (who claimed to be Christian!) rampaged and slaughtered the people.   This is described in a small book (from Beirut to Jerusalem) by a Chinese pediatric surgeon Dr Swee Chai Ang.   (not to be confused with Thomas Friedman's book of the same name) She describes the tragedy of the Palestinians and reported on it in Jerusalem. Begin was reprimanded by the Israeli Knesset.  Yet the world took little notice.   I had been in Beirut about 6 months earlier and walked through the Sabra camp and realized it was no larger than Harvard yard.  It had been as crowded as Harvard yard on commencement!  The massacre took place during Rosh Hasannah and just before Yom Kippur (the day of Atonement).   As I told everyone who would listen:  "Both Jews and Christians have a lot to atone for".

But in all of this there was no clear Palestinian acceptance of Israel.  Technically, a hawkish Israeli leader could say “we have no partner in peace”.   But all this changed when in an unprecedented unanimous vote of the Arab League.  by prince (later King Abdullah) of Saudi Arabia expressed a willingness to make peace.  Why does not the world respond:  "the Palestinians have no partner in peace"?  The US government allows itself to ignore the arab resolution and thereby renders itself liable to terror attacks.   


    This phrase is now being used in a particular way.  Again it can be used locally,  (do I have a right to exist?) or by groups and nations.    It might seem that my right to exist is obvious yet even now it is contested by those who  ask for the death penalty for murderers.   But when it is extended to groups and nations complications multiply.  

    When does a nation have aright to exist?  and under what conditions?  This has been disputed for millenia.   Clearly the rights and duties must be defined.   Presumably both France and Germany have a right to exist.   But what are their boundaries?   After John Churchill (Duke of Marlborough) won the battle  of Blenheim,  France's ambitions to exercize  control over the area declined.   This was accelerated in 1870 when Germany in the Franco-Prussian war took over Alsace and Lorraine.   This changed again after world war I.   Does France have a "right to exist"? 

   We now tend to insist that the right of a state to exist not only is dependent on well defined boundaries,  which rarely exist, but is very dtependent on a  detailed concern for Human Rights of ALL persons living within these boundaries.   These rights are enshrined in many UN resolutions formally agreed by all UN countries.    But it is evident that not one country in the world (no even the Vatican) has a perfect record in this respect.   Both I and my wife call upon the USA to continually examine our actions to see whether they correspond to the world view on human rights.   I note here two reports by former US diplomats, Mr Dean and Mr  Speirs about this.

Does the right to exist imply a right to defend oneself?  

     Again this is simpler for an individual than for a nation.    The death penalty for individual miscreants was normal until the last 50 years or so.  But the right for a nation brings complications.  My own experience can illuminate this.  I first heard a similar phrase by Franz Goebbels,  Adolf Hitler's propoganda minister when I was in my teens.   At school we would parody this.  One boy would approach another with raised fists:   "I am just defending myself" .   This happened several times in my memory WITH MY  FRIENDS.   In retrospect I note that this parody was largely by refugees from Nazi Germany - a correlation whose significance was not immediately obvious to me. Clearly this right to defend oneself is limited, and if misused it leads to extremists taking over.  

    My wife, Andree and I,  argue that the actions of the Israeli government were particularly bad under Mr Sharon,  and now worse under Mr Netanyahu are clearly inappropriate.  What are the boundaries of the state of Israel?   We have not a clear statement from the government of Israel itself  and we have heard none from anyone such as (AIPAC) claiming that Israel can choose its boundaries independent of the rest of the world.  Are they the boundaries mentioned in the British White Paper of 1936?  The boundaries of the 1949 armistice (the Green line)? Those discussed by Theodore Herzl in his well publicized statement in the 1890s?  I note a recent suggestion that Herzl was more interested in a Jewish homeland in Patagonia but was dissuaded in WW I by Rothschild. Or the boundaries he proposed in later writings  (from the Suez canal to the Euphrates?  Whichever they are, all persons within these boundaries clearly do NOT have equal rights either in Israeli law or  world opinion (The best reference here, bad though it is, is the General Assembly of the UN).   Americans for Peace now have an interactive map of settlements in the west bank.

    Both my wife Andree and I object to the view that was held by Christians until recently that there is collective guilt of Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.   It has led to many racist actions in the past.   But we argue that Israel should not consider that there is a collective guilt of Palestinians and certainly Israel should not tolerate collective punishment.    
Yet it does.     A call for divestiture from over 200 Jewish people was made in May 2014.

  In July and August 2014 there has been especial concern:  for example the following statement :

"The signatories to this statement, all academics at Israeli universities, wish it to be known that they utterly deplore the aggressive military strategy being deployed by the Israeli government. The slaughter of large numbers of wholly innocent people is placing yet more barriers of blood in the way of the negotiated agreement which is the only alternative to the occupation and endless oppression of the Palestinian people. Israel must agree to an immediate cease-fire, and start negotiating in good faith for the end of the occupation and settlements, through a just peace agreement.  "

This was signed by 70+ Israeli academics presently in Universities in Israel.

We therefore strongly support these statements.