Academic boycott of Israel gathers momentum

From the archive (legacy material)

Polly Curtis | The Guardian | 25 March 2004

Leading advocates of an academic boycott of Israel have stepped up their campaign calling for an “outing” of Israeli universities which support their government’s policy on the occupied territories.
Nearly 300 academics from around the world have published an open letter calling for leaders of Israeli universities to lay their political cards on the table and reveal whether they support the government’s policies on the border conflict.
One Israeli academic said the move echoed the days of “McCarthyism” in America.
The letter, which is addressed to Professor Menachem Magidor, president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and “members of Israel’s forum to combat the academic boycott”, says that Palestinian universities are being severely compromised. “Harassment, arrests, random shootings and assaults” are carried out regularly by Israeli troops on Palestinian campuses, it claims.
It goes on: “Given the destructive nature of Israeli government action against Palestinian education and academic freedom, and your simultaneous expression of concern for Israeli academic freedom in the face of the boycott, we feel that it is only fair to ask the Israeli academic leadership where it stands on the issue of current Israeli policy as described above, and to share with us what Israeli academic institutions are doing to challenge the behavior of your government.”
The letter also calls for an international public debate to be held at an Israeli institution. Among the signatories, who hail from 12 countries including Israel, are Andre Brink, the South African novelist, Ronnie Kasrils, minister of water affairs and forestry of South Africa, and Hilary and Steven Rose who were among the first in the UK to call for the boycott. Mona Baker who caused a row after she sacked two Israeli academics from a journal she edited after signing the original petition two years ago is also on the list.
Hilary Rose said: “I’m hoping that this will re-open… and deepen the discussion of what is happening to the Palestinian academic system at every level – schools are shut, universities are shut, the military enter the campuses at will; it is a completely impossible situation.”
“It’s about outing Israeli academics and saying you can’t actually pretend that this isn’t going on.”
She said that the recent assassination of the Palestinian resistance group Hamas’s founder and spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin had “intensified” her belief in the boycott and added that they were calling for a public meeting so people could see that such a meeting would be impossible for Palestinian academics to attend in the current climate.
Professor Nachman Ben-Yehuda, of Hebrew University’s sociology department, said that there was no formal forum discussing a response to the boycott, but that members of the university were monitoring the boycott and approaching individuals taking part in the boycott to discuss the issues. He said the letter harped back to the days of McCarthyism.
“I have no desire to go back to the days of McCarthy where people had to sign forms to say whether they were loyal or not.
“We should isolate this conflict [the border conflict] not escalate into other parts of public life. If people want to go against the government, that’s fine, but what do they want from Israeli academia? Israeli academia is not the Israeli government.”
He added: “Did such a letter go to Harvard to ask whether they support Bush in Iraq? If academics have to come out and say what they believe in why just Israel? Why shouldn’t they ask the LSE [London School of Economics] if they support the Gulf war? Why just Israel?”
The debate over the academic boycott of Israel has raged for the past two years since two petitions, one calling for an out and out boycott and the other for a moratorium on EU research funding to Israel, were established. Further petitions opposing the boycotts have since gathered thousands of signatures.