The University and College Union annual congress last week voted by a two-thirds majority to organise a campus tour for Palestinian academic trade unionists to explain why they had called for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, and to encourage UCU members to consider the moral implications of links with Israeli universities. Not surprisingly, this overwhelming vote met with a roar of hostility from what we have learned to call the Israel lobby.
Our government, long accustomed to sitting on its hands when any serious attempt to censure Israel is made, predictably joined the chorus. More surprisingly, the Independent's editorialist and its columnist Joan Smith followed along. The boycott, we are told, damages academic freedom, picks on Israel, and encourages anti-Semitism on British campuses.
Entirely suppressed in this harrumphing has been any thought about why Palestinian university teachers and their union, as well as all the NGOs in the Occupied Territories, have called for a boycott. Academic freedom, it appears, applies to Israelis but not Palestinians, whose universities have been arbitrarily closed, Bir Zeit for a full four years. Students and teachers have been killed or imprisoned. Attendance at university is made hazardous or impossible by the everyday imposition of checkpoints. Research is blocked by Israeli refusal to allow books or equipment to be imported.
Even within Israel itself, some universities sit on illegally expropriated land, Arab student unions are not recognised and there are increasing covert restrictions on Arab-Israelis (20 per cent of the population) entering university at all. No Israeli academic trade union or professional association has expressed solidarity with their Palestinian colleagues a few kilometres away across the wall, though the boycott call may finally encourage them to do so.
When challenged, Israelis cite examples of collaboration with Palestinians: bridges, not borders. Fine, but because Palestinian academics from Gaza or the West bank are not permitted to enter pre-1967 Israel, how real can such collaborations be? If academic freedom means anything, it must be indivisible. And what are Palestinians to make of the uncensured insistence by senior Israeli academics that their family size constitutes a demographic threat to the Jewish state?
But why should academics, culture workers, architects and doctors in the UK, who have all in recent months called for forms of boycott of Israel, take such action? Why pick on Israel, we are asked. After all, as Joan Smith points out, there are lots of ugly regimes around. How about boycotting the UK until troops are removed from Iraq? But boycott is merely a specific tactic, a non-violent weapon available to individual members of civil society. It is only one form of protest: many boycott supporters are at least as actively involved in the various campaigns against the UK's illegal war in Iraq as in any boycott of Israel.
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No one asks those campaigning against China's occupation of Tibet why not Israel or Darfur? If opponents of our boycott call want to make a case for boycotting Cuba (one boycott that Israel, following its American paymaster at the UN, habitually supports) they are free to do so. The issue is not "Why Israel?" but "Why not Israel?" Yet the secular western press, so willing to express discomfort with states that describe themselves as "Islamic Republics" is seemingly untroubled by the ethnic assumptions underlying the claims of a Jewish republic.
Further, it is precisely because Israel prides itself on its academic prowess (just as South Africa did of its sporting prowess) that the idea of an academic boycott is so painful. Israel has uniquely strong academic links with Europe, and despite its Middle-East location and constant breaches of European legislation on human rights, receives considerable financial research support from the EU. That's why the Israeli cabinet felt it necessary to set up an anti-boycott committee under that well-known campaigner for a greater Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, and why teams of Israeli academics toured the UK before the UCU vote to try to block the boycott call.
Lurking behind the thinking of even well-meaning opponents of the boycott is that it is in some way anti-Semitic. This ignores the fact that the boycott is of Israeli institutions, not individuals (so it would affect the tiny number of Palestinian academics in Israeli institutions, but not a Jewish Israeli working in the UK or US). Second, it ignores the fact that the British Jewish community is itself intensely divided over Israel, between those who will defend Israel at all costs, and the increasingly vocal critics who insist "not in our name". Even a cursory look at the signatories of the various boycott calls will show the large number of prominent Jewish figures among them. It really isn't good enough to attack the messenger as anti-Semitic or a self-hating Jew rather than deal with the message itself, that Israel's conduct is unacceptable.
What could be a more democratic way of bringing debate on to university campuses than the instruction to the UCU to organise a campus tour for Palestinian academic trade unionists to engage in discussion before UCU members decide whether to support their call for a boycott? Those who cherish the idea of the university as the house of reason will surely welcome the opportunity for calm discussion of a controversial issue.
The writer is secretary of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine
© 2007 The Independent