Arab-Israeli politics split UK campuses

From the archive (legacy material)

Arthur Neslen | Aljazeera | 29 October 2003

The decision by Oxford University to suspend a professor without pay for two months for refusing to teach a former Israeli soldier has ratcheted up campus tensions and may spark an academic rebellion.
Andrew Wilkie, a pathology expert at the prestigious Pembroke College, was suspended on Monday and told to undergo equal opportunities training after he told Amit Duvshani, a masters student at Tel Aviv University: “No way would I take on someone who has served in the Israeli army”.
Representatives of Muslim and Jewish student unions both said the development would heighten tensions, and one eminent British professor told she would now consider taking the same action as Wilkie.
“I think he was right to make that stand,” Mona Baker said. “It was a statement of conscience and if more people did that, we wouldn’t have atrocities being committed in Palestine.”
“I would consider doing the same thing as long as I was covered legally. Andrew made a mistake in legal terms and so exposed himself. He could have been more careful.”
Other British academics also pledged their support. One, Sue Blackwell, wrote to Mr Wilkie that, “In my view, it’s the Israeli government who need equal opportunities training and not the people who take a stand against them.”
The debate over boycotting individual Israeli academics and students has long been an acrimonious one. In February, thousands of Jewish and Muslim students staged counter protests when Manchester University Students Union debated a motion describing Israel as an “apartheid state”.
Campus tensions
Hassan Patel of the Student Federation of Islamic Societies said Muslim students were increasingly angry at double standards in the treatment of statements of conscience about the Middle East.
“The tensions rise when those wanting to promote the cause of Palestine are not allowed to,” he told “It will raise tensions now if the supporters of Andrew Wilkie are not allowed to show their feelings.”
Danny Stone, the campaigns officer for the Union of Jewish Students, said that campus tensions reflected the state of relations in the Middle East.
“Every time there’s a raising of tensions there, there’s a rise in anti-Semitic attacks and tensions on campus here,” he said.
Where boycotts of individuals are concerned, even some peace activists say collective punishment of civilians is wrong, whether practised by Israel or by pro-Palestinian activists.
However, Danny Stone, one of the reputed leaders of the campaign against Wilkie, is not a peace activist. He believes that the University’s decision to suspend the eminent pathologist did not go far enough.
“It was a positive move,” he said, “but we’re calling for more to be done. We would like to see him removed from all relevant decision-making bodies in terms of admissions and would like to see compulsory equal opportunities training introduced for academics all over the university.”
Racism or politics?
However, the issue is not black and white. Israeli academics such as Rachel Giora of Tel Aviv University have written letters of support to Wilkie, and Baker said sending the professor for equal opportunities training was a bid to muddy the waters.
“Israel’s army is a force of occupation. That is understood and accepted internationally. It is nonsense to confuse the issue with one of racism”
“Andrew made a statement of conscience, not racism,” she insisted. “He specifically said his objection was that Duvshani had served in the army, not that he was Israeli.”
“Israel’s army is a force of occupation. That is understood and accepted internationally. It is nonsense to confuse the issue with one of racism. The power of the Zionist lobby is absolutely appalling.”
The Union of Jewish Students, though, claims that because military service is compulsory for young Israelis, a boycott of former soldiers is effectively an embargo on the 90% of the population.
“These things start with not allowing someone who is Israeli to study and go on to preventing people who are black or Muslim from studying,” Danny Stone said. “Wilkie stopped someone studying because of the colour of his passport. It was a terrible form of discrimination.”
Letter of conscience
As Stone is fully aware though, Wilkie’s decision was taken on political, not racial or religious grounds. In his letter to the candidate, the professor wrote:
“I have a huge problem with the way that the Israelis take the moral high ground from their appalling treatment in the Holocaust, and then inflict gross human rights abuses on the Palestinians because they wish to live in their own country.”
“I am sure that you are perfectly nice at a personal level, but no way would I take on somebody who had served in the Israeli army. As you may be aware, I am not the only UK scientist with these views but I’m sure you will find another suitable lab if you look around.”
Hassan Patel pointed out that over a thousand young Israelis have refused to join the occupation. “Someone who serves in the Israeli army is making a choice to be complicit in the oppression of the Palestinian people,” he said. “They could also take a position of conscience.”
The decision to suspend Wilkie for his position of conscience comes just days after a statement was circulated by several prominent Palestinian academics and intellectuals calling for an international boycott of Israeli academic institutions.