Academic boycott 'wrong political tool', says Israeli minister

From the archive (legacy material)

The Guardian | 9 October 2006

An Israeli cabinet member today warned the British education secretary, Alan Johnson, of the “tremendously dangerous” impact a boycott of Israeli universities would have on international academia.
Today’s meeting between Mr Johnson and the education minister Yuli Tamir was the first time ministers from the UK and Israel have met to discuss anti-Israeli sentiment on university campuses.
The meeting follows a motion at the May conference of the lecturers’ union, Natfhe, which successfully called for a boycott of Israeli lecturers and academic institutions who did not publicly dissociate themselves from Israel’s “apartheid policies”.
Last year the Association of University Teachers also elected to impose an academic boycott on two Israeli universities. However, after an international outcry and a revolt by members it reversed the decision.
The two unions merged to create the University and College Union (UCU) just days after the Natfhe motion was passed, effectively making the motion redundant. However, members might choose to revive the issue at the first UCU conference, planned for June next year.
Speaking at the Israeli embassy today, Ms Tamir said Israeli academics had a “high degree” of freedom and were able to criticise the government but she warned that anti-semitism underlay some criticism of Israel and that some of the arguments for a boycott used anti-semitic language.
Ms Tamir, who has also visited the US to discuss the issue, said there was very strong anti-Israeli feeling in some quarters of the UK academic community. She said she would ask Mr Johnson to put pressure on vice-chancellors to help to avert support for a boycott.
She said: “In a way what a boycott does is it weakens the possibility that there will be a real debate in Israel and there will be ways to change or support the way the government behaves.”
“It is dysfunctional and it is using the wrong political tool, and it creates within the academic community quite a lot of restricted dialogue and an attempt to silence … the differences.
“Some of the language used to justify the boycott seems to be over and above what is reasonable political criticism.”
The minister warned that racism against Jews could easily spread to other vulnerable minority groups. She said an increasing number of Jewish students felt intimidated on UK campuses and action was needed to protect them from extremists.
Her comments echoed the findings of an all-party parliamentary inquiry into anti-semitism, published last month. It heard that Jewish students were increasingly alarmed by virulent attacks on Israel and the situation has been made worse by the conflict in southern Lebanon.
The inquiry, which was chaired by the MP Denis MacShane, recommended that university authorities should record any instances of anti-semitic behaviour.
Members of the panel also said a boycott would be an assault on academic freedom and intellectual exchange. The inquiry was told that, even if the motivation of boycotters was not anti-semitic, their actions could still cause problems for Jewish academics and students.