Professors in Britain Vote to Boycott Two Israeli Schools

From the archive (legacy material)

LIZETTE ALVAREZ | The New York Times | 8 May 2005

LONDON, May 7 – Acting in response to an appeal by 60 Palestinian organizations, Britain’s leading higher education union has voted to boycott two Israeli universities.
The boycott, which has prompted outrage in Israel, the United States and Britain, would bar Israeli faculty members at Haifa University and Bar-Ilan University from taking part in academic conferences or joint research with their British colleagues.
The resolution on the boycott, passed by the Association of University Teachers in late April, would allow an exception only for those academics at the two schools who declare opposition to Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.
The move has so angered Jewish groups in the United States that one organization, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, is considering calling on American universities to carry out a counterboycott against British universities.
“This is unreal,” said Abraham H. Foxman, its national director. “These are not ignorant peasants or extremist ideologues. They are intellectuals teaching future generations to respect, to dialogue and to cooperate, and they are saying boycott the Jews again.”
“What about those who are suffering in Cuba and China and Rwanda?” he asked. “Where is the support to deal with Sudan?”
Critics of the boycott have denounced it in newspapers, on the Internet and in government declarations as antithetical to academic freedom, ill-timed, misguided and, at worst, anti-Semitic. Both sides see it as part of a larger trend of increasing pressure on Israel to withdraw from occupied lands.
Last year, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) opted to begin divesting from companies that it believes benefit from the Israeli occupation. A similar call is being considered by the United Church of Christ.
But Britain and the rest of Europe tend to be considerably more outspoken in their support of Palestinians and in opposition to the Israeli occupation. A sponsor of the boycott proposal, Sue Blackwell, an English professor at the University of Birmingham, said the move was taken because the Palestinian organizations asked for it. Had a similar call been issued by groups in Cuba, China or Sudan, she said, it might also have been heeded.
“Delegates were moved by the pictures we showed of Palestinian families being evicted,” she said. “They were moved by stories of attacks on a Jewish Israeli academic. They were moved by an account of the settlements and what they are doing in making a Palestinian state impossible. It was a response to the overall plight of the Palestinian people.”
At the conference, delegates were told of the difficulty Palestinians face traveling from the occupied territories to Israeli universities; learned about a college in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, which bars Palestinians; and heard about the treatment of a professor, Dr. Ilan Pappe, an Israeli Jew who is an outspoken anti-Zionist. Parallels were drawn between Israel and South Africa, where education was racially segregated under apartheid.
Using language lifted from a Palestinian call to action, the British motions framed the boycott as a “contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonization and system of apartheid.”
Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which pushed for the union vote in Britain, said comparing Israeli occupation to South African apartheid was a fair parallel. While Palestinians are not officially barred from Israeli universities, they are effectively kept out, he said.
“Palestinian academics have been denied the right to move, to travel and often to teach due to occupation policies,” Mr. Barghouti said.
“They have been effectively subject to a de facto boycott for decades,” he said. “Aren’t they part of the academic community that deserves academic freedom?”
But some academics in Britain said severing ties to Israeli universities was counterproductive because they provided opportunities to air differences and hold debate.
“We think to target Israeli universities is to target some of the places that have some of the most open spaces in Israel, spaces that are against the occupation and against anti-Arab racism, spaces where Jews and Palestinians learn together,” said David Hirsh, a professor of sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, who opposes the Israeli occupation but is working to overturn the boycott.
“A lot of people who support this are motivated by an understandable want or wish to help Palestinians,” he said. “What we have also said is that the union has adopted a position that is effectively anti-Semitic because it has chosen to hold the Israeli Jewish academics responsible for the actions of their state and university administrators, when the union doesn’t hold any other academic in the world responsible in that way.”
Neil Goldstein, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said the boycott evoked “the sorts of techniques that were used to try to deny Jews the right to participate in academic life in prewar Germany.”
British professors have declined to work with individual Israeli academics in the past, and a number of student unions have taken up the boycott cause. In 2002, a professor at a university in Manchester fired two Israeli academics from journals that she owned, saying that although they were friends, they represented the state of Israel. In 2003, an Oxford professor denied a student at Tel Aviv University permission to work in his laboratory because the student had served in the Israeli Army.
In Britain, where some leading academics, including some Nobel Prize winners, have been highly critical of the boycott, 25 union members are trying to overturn it. They petitioned last week for an emergency council meeting, which now has been called for May 26 in order to hold another debate and a new vote.
The approval of the boycott appeared to surprise even its framers; it had failed in 2003 and was opposed by the academic union’s executive board. This time, the authors of the motions narrowed the boycott to select universities and underscored its endorsements by Palestinian organizations, including the Palestinian higher education trade union.
Haifa University was singled out because Dr. Pappe, who teaches there, maintains that he has faced harsh treatment for his views, particularly for supporting a student’s 1999 master’s thesis charging that Israeli soldiers massacred Palestinians in the village of Tantura during the 1948 war. The explosive paper was examined both by a university panel and by Israeli courts; all concluded the charges were not substantiated in the thesis. The court also found that some quotations in the thesis had been altered.
Critics of the boycott say punishing Haifa University is a particularly inappropriate way to pressure Israel, because it is one of the country’s most integrated institutions, with Israeli Arabs making up about 20 percent of its student body.
Bar-Ilan University became a target of the boycott because it recognizes credits from the College of Judea and Samaria in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. Palestinians are barred from the settlement, and thus, the college. The British academic union judged that Bar-Ilan had made itself “directly involved with the occupation of Palestinian territories.”
Just last week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon elevated its status to university, a move that riled many Israeli academics and was widely viewed as a gambit to strengthen settlements in occupied territory.