I am a signatory of the PJPO and BRICUP petitions calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. This step is taken with great reluctance, simply because governments and democratic institutions have utterly failed to defend the Palestinians from Israeli aggression. In this circumstance, the only sane recourse is highly imperfect, individual, non-violent action - boycott.
Boycott is an extremely blunt instrument, without the possibility of individual targeting, or discrimination between individuals on the basis of their level of participation in the relevant crimes, or exemption if they actively oppose the criminal policies. Boycott inevitably leads indirectly to hardship for some worthy people. For this reason boycott is absolutely a step of last resort, to be taken when the normal mechanisms for exerting pressure on a particular regime have failed.
Boycott is a tactical tool, and should only be considered when it has a reasonable chance of exerting pressure in the right direction.
My personal opinion, which is not unequivocal, and which I take only very reluctantly, is that things have come to such a pass that boycott is the correct tactical response to Israeli actions. If a boycott of Israel becomes widespread, some worthy people will be harmed financially, professionally and socially. If this happens it will be regrettable and unpleasant. But I hope that well-meaning people within Israel will understand that boycott is the only tool concerned individuals have at hand to change the course of their government, which is committing clear crimes against humanity and which endangers their own safety and that of their children, in the long term.
The most meaningful precedent is, of course, the cultural and economic boycott of Apartheid South Africa, which did play a positive role in political changes there.
Boycott of Israeli goods in the shops is a self-evident first step, which I naturally practice. I also boycott companies which have strong links with Israel, such as Marks and Spencer.
Since I am an academic myself, the academic boycott is one of the few ways in which I can make a personal statement of my utter disgust with Israel and the passivity of its academic community (with very few exceptions) to the horrifying racism and violence of its government - including its persecution of Palestinian academics.
My view is that participating in academic conferences in Israel, or collaborative projects with Israeli institutions, or accepting research funds from Israel, should be as unthinkable now as was collaboration with apartheid South Africa. In fact, it should be more unthinkable, since the present racism and violence of Israel is much worse than South Africa ever was (see here).
There are a few very courageous academics within Israel who also support the academic boycott of Israel, for essentially the same reasons as myself. See, for example one of my personal heroes, Ilan Pappˇ. He is under threat of expulsion from the university of Haifa for his stand, despite his international standing as a historian [update: Ilan Pappˇ has now left Israel, and is now a professor at the University of Exeter, UK].
My personal interpretation of this boycott is to maintain personal contacts with Israeli individuals but to break all contact with institutions on an official basis (for example, conferences in Israel, or organized by an Israeli institution, or to participate in editing or refereeing journals from Israel, etc.). I also support the call to break off funding for Israeli institutions and scientists from the EU.
go to links (including boycott organizations)