Israel boycott row hits college

From the archive (legacy material)

Polly Curtis | The Guardian | 4 December 2004

University attacked for ‘anti-Israel’ conference
London University School of Oriental and African Studies has come under fire for agreeing to host a conference tomorrow at which academics begin a campaign to break links with Israeli universities, significantly increasing an academic boycott of Israel.
Jewish groups accuse the organisers, the school’s Palestinian Society, of inciting hatred by calling the conference Resisting Israeli Apartheid: Strategies and Principles.
The Jewish Society has also lodged a complaint with the school about its decision to allow the poet and academic Tom Paulin to deliver a keynote address.
Paulin was criticised in 2002 when he was quoted in the Arab newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly as saying that Jewish settlers “should be shot dead”. He later claimed that he had been misquoted.
The speakers at the conference include Professors Steven and Hilary Rose, who began the call for an academic boycott of Israel more than two years ago in a letter to the Guardian, and the linguist Mona Baker, who was the subject of an official inquiry by the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology after she sacked two Israeli members of a journal she edited.
Gavin Gross, of the school’s Jewish Society, said: “I see this conference as an out-and-out hate conference which is solely there to delegitimise Israel and its people. It makes no pretence of balance.
“Soas has a reputation for being the centre of political extremism. In the past this has only meant the vilification of Israel; there’s no attempt at all to achieve an understanding of the conflict.”
Danny Stone, of the Union of Jewish Students, which is organising a counter-meeting at Soas tomorrow, said he had attended a meeting with the university to ask for extra security to ensure the safety of Jewish students on campus.
But one of the conference organisers, Awad Joumaa, a coordinator of the Palestinian Society, said: “We are promoting peace and equality for the Palestinian people.
“We are not the ones inciting hatred here. We are the ones under attack. If having an academic conference is inciting hatred, I don’t know what their definition of it is.”
Nur Masalha, a philosopher from St Mary’s College in Twickenham who has helped to organise speakers for the event, added: “The academic boycott is a peaceful way of trying to make a difference and influence things.
“We believe that unless we do it nothing will happen. People were quite happy to boycott South Africa. Why not Israel?”
The school released a statement distancing itself from the conference.
Colin Bundy, the director of Soas, said he had received a “substantial” volume of email objecting to the decision to host the conference.
“One of the things that has upset me is that Soas has been accused of being institutionally biased, that we’re anti-Israel or pro-Arab.
‘In fact we probably do more on the Middle East than any other university.”
He added that they were making “appropriate preparation” to ensure a peaceful event, but refused to discuss what this would involve.
The conference will mark the launch of a new boycott organisation, the British Committee for Universities in Palestine.
Hilary Rose, who is coordinating the campaign, said that it marked a substantial escalation of the boycott movement.
“We want people to think about the depth of the moral challenge of the boycott. It’s not an easy matter for any academic to do this, it’s a measure of our despair at our government’s inability to take the situation seriously and work for a just peace.”
The committee has drawn up a manifesto calling on academics to break links with Israel by refusing to work with Israeli institutions, referee academic papers, grant applications or attend conferences.
But it promises to support Israelis “working with Palestinian colleagues in their demand for self-determination and academic freedom”.