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A boycott call shakes up British academia

Hasan Suroor

The decision by Britain's premier Association of University Teachers to enforce an academic boycott of Israel has evoked mixed reactions.

AFTER YEARS of somnolence, is activism returning to the British academia at last? Or is it just a flash in the pan? A few mavericks trying to shake things up?

Whatever the answer, Britain's 40,000-strong Association of University Teachers (AUT) — the biggest teachers' forum in the country — has clearly set the cat among the pigeons by declaring an unprecedented academic boycott of Israel provoking a heated debate that looks like turning into an international row with Jewish scholars not only in Israel but many other countries threatening a "reciprocal" boycott of British universities.

The boycott, decided by a narrow vote at the AUT's annual Council meeting recently, specifically targets two Israeli universities — Bar Ilan and Haifa. While the former is accused of being "directly involved with the occupation of Palestinian territories" because of its links with a college based in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, the latter is attacked for suppressing academic freedom and not allowing objective research on the "history of the founding of the state of Israel." A specific charge against Haifa university is that it threatened to sack a lecturer for supporting a scholar's thesis on an alleged Israeli massacre in 1948.

More broadly, the boycott is a protest against Israeli academics as a class for not speaking out against their Government's repressive policies towards Palestinians. Its sponsors say that the silence of Israeli academia in the face of "systematic" harassment of Palestinians leaves it open to the charge of covertly supporting the policies of the state. Sue Blackwell of Birmingham University, who led the boycott campaign, said Israeli educational institutions were guilty of discriminating against and intimidating Palestinian teachers and students.

"Palestinian academics are repeatedly prevented from doing their work. Israeli forces have welded shut the gates to one Palestinian University and dug trench around another," she said denying that the move was "anti-semitic" as alleged by Britain-based Israeli diplomats and Jewish groups.

That is all very well, say the critics, but would the boycott work? And should academics be in the business of erecting "walls" between fellow scholars when they should really be pulling down "barriers" and building bridges? The move is also seen as an attack on academic freedom and the right of British scholars to interact with their counterparts in other parts of the world. "Academic collaboration and exchange should stand above politics and should serve as a vehicle for creating connections that politicians have a difficult time making," said a group of Cambridge University academics in a joint statement arguing that the boycott was likely to "push back" efforts to promote peace in the region.

The Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which works with Israeli and Palestinian academics, has also expressed reservations saying that while it is not opposed to a boycott "in principle" it is not sure whether it would have the desired effect or, on the contrary, "hinder attempts to build support for fundamental Palestinian rights."

"The key issue is not to be diverted from other activities that most of those who seek to end the occupation (of Palestinian territories) support," said the Faculty members in a letter to The Guardian signed by more than 70 other academics including the historian Eric Hobsbawm.

There have been a spate of statements from academics on both sides of the boycott "divide," and the dominant theme is that while the Palestinian struggle deserves full support a boycott, especially one which does not have state-backing, would not work and may even prove counterproductive as the right-wing in Israel could use it to "discredit" and "marginalise" those who are resisting their Government's policies.

It is the first major academic protest of its kind since the successful anti-apartheid boycott of South African universities, and supporters of the AUT move are hoping that it would serve as a catalyst for academics in other countries to join in, thereby building up sufficient international moral pressure on Israel. If it could work against South Africa, why should it not work against Israel, they ask.

But does the parallel hold? Not that the Israeli state is any more benign than the apartheid regime in South Africa was. But there are clearly differences, and a major difference — critics argue — is that in the case of South Africa, the pressure for outside intervention came from South African academics and students themselves. The current boycott, on the other hand, is largely unilateral — almost gratuitous. The Times called it a "tokenism" pointing out that unlike South Africa where "almost all black students complained of discrimination" the situation in Israel is different.

"In both universities (Haifa and Bar Ilan), Jews and Arabs study together, and in Haifa especially there is a substantial number of Arab lecturers and students. ... if Palestinian students themselves are not calling for a boycott, what is the point of such tokenism by the AUT," the newspaper asked.

Given its known pro-Israeli tilt, The Times may be protesting too much but even those with strong commitment to the Palestinian cause are sceptical about the level of support the boycott might generate even among Palestinian academics, let alone their Israeli colleagues. One Palestinian university — Al-Quds University — is already reported to have declared that it does not favour a boycott saying that it wants to "build bridges, not walls; to reach out to the Israeli academic institutions, not to impose another restriction, or dialogue block on ourselves."

The British academia itself is deeply divided and, as mentioned before, many of those have reservations about the boycott fully support the "spirit" behind it but believe that the tactic is too "provocative." A senior official of AUT's Cambridge branch, who supported the boycott, has since resigned acknowledging that there was not "adequate consultation... in advance of the debate."

Unclear about enforcement

Moreover, as the move is not backed by universities, its supporters are not clear how it is to be enforced. The AUT has not set out any guidelines and, in fact, it has advised its members "not to take any action in relation to a boycott" that might be in breach of their contractual obligations.

Britain has strong laws against discrimination, including on grounds of nationality, and teachers have been warned that singling out someone simply because they are Israelis would be unlawful. A spokesman of the Universities and College Employers' Association has made clear that the proposed boycott is "contrary to contractual law, race and religious discrimination law, and academic freedom obligations that are built into the contracts of staff."

How many teachers would be prepared to put their careers on the line after such an explicit warning? Remember the case of Mona Baker, a professor at Manchester University, who was subjected to a humiliating disciplinary inquiry after she sacked two Israeli academics from her journal for precisely the same reasons that have prompted the boycott call? Another senior academic was forced to retract and apologise for refusing to supervise an Israeli scholar because of his Government's policies.

Clearly, the move has been rushed through without seriously considering the practical difficulties. Its sponsors have also spoilt their case by appearing to prescribe a "loyalty test" for Israeli academics implying that if they do not support the boycott they must be regarded as potential "collaborators." This has what The Guardian called "an unpleasantly McCarthyite ring." To me, it echoes the post-9/11 campaign that Muslims must constantly wear their condemnation of terrorism on their sleeve or risk being seen as covert bin Laden supporters. "It is wrong to assume that all or most Israeli academics support the policies of Ariel Sharon's Government any more than their counterparts on British or U.S. college campuses universally back George Bush and Tony Blair over Iraq. Introducing tests to determine whether an individual agrees with specific policies would be open to insuperable difficulties of interpretation," the newspaper said. Besides, it plays into the hands of Jewish groups who are quick to equate any criticism of Israel with "anti-semitism."

The debate has been not been without its share of double standards as many of the academics, opposed to the current move, have been shown to have supported selective boycott of students from the Soviet Union during the Cold War on grounds of "academic freedom"!

Although the boycott is unlikely to make much headway and there is already a move to overturn it, at a time when campus activism seems to have gone out of fashion in Britain, one is inclined to applaud the mavericks at AUT for taking the plunge. Who says the seductive charms of old-fashioned idealism do not work?

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