Plain Talk

From the archive (legacy material)

Mursi Saad El-Din | Al-Ahram Weekly | 9-15 June 2005, Issue No. 746

Two weeks ago I wrote about the decision of the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) to boycott two Israeli universities, calling upon the Palestinians and the Arabs to react to that supportive decision. Whatever reaction there, however, was came from Israel and its supporters in Britain instead. Although the issue was addressed by the British press, no significant mention was made in the Arab media save for a trickle of isolated coverages, including my own.
One of the article which appeared in the London press hailing the decision was published in The Sunday Times about Sue Blackwell, the 47- year-old Linguistics lecturer at Birmingham University who was behind the AUT decision.
Israel and its friends immediately mustered their forces and begun an anti- Blackwell campaign, describing the decision as an expression of anti-Semitism. Blackwell retorted by appearing in her web site draped in a Palestinian flag, with a caption that read: “Victory to the academic intifada.”
The Jewish lobby became frantically active. The Union of Jewish Students submitted a dossier to the House of Commons’ selected committee investigating racism on campuses purporting that Blackwell’s web site had links of an anti-Semite nature. Although Blackwell’s answer was that the boycott expresses support of Palestinians in the West Bank, the hate mail she receives has not diminished.
In The Sunday Times article she is quoted as saying: “It’s a gut reaction. It’s to show solidarity with one of the most oppressed people on earth who deserve justice. Israel is lucky to have powerful allies, particularly the United States — but the Palestinians need allies in other countries.”
Blackwell was nonetheless attacked left, right and centre. Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors and principals, described the boycott as “inimical to academic freedom”, while the Academic Friends of Israel called it a “backward step in the current climate of positive moves being made in the region”. The Jewish writer Howard Jacobson described the boycott as a “closing of minds en masse… mobilised prejudice”.
Blackwell, nonetheless, remains adamant in her stand. Again in The Sunday Times article by Deirdre Fernand, she says “To the people who say we should have dialogue, not boycott, I ask ‘dialogue with whom?’ … You can’t have dialogue without justice — which is what the Palestinians are crying out for. Many of them are not allowed out of their homes to attend university; yet Israeli academics can go swanning around the world at the drop of a hat.” So far, according to the article, Blackwell received 100 messages of support, and 165 of attack. But, she says, “I’m still counting those.”
The academic, however, is not alone in her challenge. In an article in The Independent ‘s Education Supplement, Professor David Seddon, from the School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia, and Dr Martha Mundy, reader of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, published an article titled “Why we support the Israeli University boycott”.
The boycott, in their opinion, is directed at particular institutions and, more generally, at the failure of Israeli academia to speak the truth. “We support this boycott,” the writers explain, “not from a false position of superiority, but as part of the opposition to illegal invasion and occupation of sovereign territories. At stake are violations of human rights on such a scale that not to take action renders us co-responsible.” The article ends with decisive words: “Israel leaves us with little choice but to support the boycott.”
My question and concern in this matter remain centred around the deafening silence of bodies such as the “Union of Arab Students” in London — and where is the Egyptian Students Union which I formed in the 1940s? The Jewish lobby has reacted, and what is the reaction of the Arabs and Muslims of London?
In a final note, for whom it may concern, the decision of the boycott was, unfortunately, revoked by an extra-ordinary meeting of the AUT.