Don't boycott us, plead Israeli academics

From the archive (legacy material)

Polly Curtis | The Guardian | 18 April 2005

Israeli academics are appealing to members of the Association of University Teachers not to back an academic boycott of a number of their institutions.
The AUT is due to vote on Friday on whether to boycott the Hebrew University, Bar Ilans University and Haifa University, in protest over their government’s actions against Palestinians, and the universities’ alleged complicity in elements of that.
The forthcoming vote at the AUT’s annual conference in Eastbourne has already sparked controversy in the UK and abroad.
After the proposal was first reported in the Guardian two weeks ago, details were published in Israeli national newspapers and debated in TV news programmes.
However, as the vote draws near, the merits of a boycott are being furiously debated by email groups and on the websites of leading Israeli and Palestinian academics.
The boycott has won the support of the majority of Palestinian academics, but has the backing of just a “handful” of Israeli academics, said Sue Blackwell of Birmingham University today. She is author of the call to boycott.
But, while Israeli institutions and most of the country’s academics naturally oppose such a move, even the most prominent Israeli academics on the left are calling for the boycott to be dropped before it is even adopted.
In a message being distributed on the internet, Reuven Kaminer, an Israeli activist and writer, said that he had “reservations” about whether the boycott was practical.
“Any right-minded individual should know by now that the occupation, [meaning] the brutal and corrupt Israeli military control over the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, is an abomination and a disgrace,” he wrote.
However, he went on to set out his reservations, which, he argued, could leave it ‘counterproductive’. He said that the motion was unclear about whether the boycott was against institutions and individuals, adding that this could leave people confused.
“I fear that the Palestinian groups are making a huge mistake when they lump the academic scene and the cultural scene together and call for a cultural boycott,” he added, explaining that he believed cultural and academic spheres to be “very separate.”
A clause that exempts Israelis who are critical of their own government from being boycotted could, however, leave them exposed within their institutions if they are identified through their links with British academics.
The two authors of the Palestinian call for a boycott, Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian writer and activist, and Lisa Taraki, of Birzeti University near Ramallah, have penned a response to Mr Kaminer.
In a paper entitled Academic Boycott and the Israeli Left, they write: “Some of the most committed Israeli opponents of their state’s illegal military occupation of the Palestinian territories have recently expressed serious reservations about, if not strident opposition to, the Palestinian call for boycott of Israel’s academic and cultural institutions. We think that their concerns are worth addressing.”
Among other arguments, they reject claims that by calling for an academic boycott they would harm the one sector of Israel society that is most likely to be sympathetic to the Palestinian situation.
“Israeli academics, by and large, serve in the occupation army, and hardly ever publicly denounce Israel’s occupation, its system of racial discrimination against its own Palestinian citizens, or its obdurate denial of the internationally-sanctioned rights of Palestinian refugees. This constitutes collusion,” they argue.
Mr Barghouti and Ms Taraki are also busy defending the boycott against new opposition from Palestinian quarters.
The Arabic Jerusalem-based Al-Quds University has issued a statement opposing the boycott. “We are informed by the principle that we should seek to win Israelis over to our side, not to win against them.
“Therefore, informed by this national duty, we believe it is in our interest to build bridges, not walls; to reach out to the Israeli academic institutions, not to impose another restriction or dialogue-block on ourselves.”
A statement by Mr Barghouti, signed by 40 prominent Palestinian academics worldwide, condemns the statement as “seriously flawed”. They point out, for example, that a recent poll of Al-Quds staff showed that three-quarters supported a boycott.
“Israelis who are behind our boycott can be counted on the fingers of one hand,” said Ms Blackwell. “There are some, we hope the number will grow. There may be many who do support it from the closet, but they look at the victimisation that has taken place, and that may deter them from speaking out.”
Ms Blackwell said she thought that the first motion on Friday, which pushes for the Palestinian call for a boycott to be circulated, would be passed. But she would not speculate on those regarding the boycott of the individual institutions.