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Building the Academic Boycott in Britain

Hilary Rose

Professor Emerita of Social Policy (University of Bradford)

PAPERS FROM THE CONFERENCE HELD AT SOAS
Resisting Israeli Apartheid: Strategies and Principles

An International Conference on Palestine

London, 5 December 2004

 

We are here today at SOAS to set in train nothing less than an international boycott movement of historic significance. The size and difficulties of the task we have set ourselves, and the bitterness of our enemies are immense. We should not indeed cannot underestimate this.

Palestinian Universities operate under unacceptable conditions. At intervals the Israeli army simply closes teaching down, and even when teaching is going on enters the campuses and harasses and arrests both students and staff. At al-Quds University in Occupied East Jerusalem Israel proposes to build a section of the Wall on the campus itself. Travelling to study or teach means crossing checkpoints with no certainty about making the classroom. One academic on his way to teach was stopped at the checkpoint because he was "under 45" -a rule made up that day by the commanding officer. Another was refused permission to cross, on the grounds that as an assistant professor he was only an assistant to the professor so could not possibly be giving a lecture. It's tough enough teaching under occupation, but to be thus personally frustrated and humiliated is intolerable. Whilst these are actions of the IDF under the authority of the Israeli state, it is important to remember that Israeli academic and research institutions have been actively or passively complicit in these acts. A few brave Israeli academics have protested (Dr Ilan Pappe says no more than a handful at most) but in the main academics, along with their institutions, have been content to continue to benefit from the fruits of repression.

Benefiting from the fruits of repression without vocal and strong opposition is to support tacitly the current regime. It is for this reason that the common suggestion, that Israeli academics are a source of liberal opposition to a regime condemned by Amnesty International, and so should be protected from criticism, is frankly unsustainable. For that matter the claim that the military and the university are separate institutions, defensible when a country has a professional army, cannot be sustained when University teachers and their students also serve in the military. The soldiers who deliberately kill children, such as the 13 year old girl or who made the musician play at the checkpoint – or who give the orders that lead to these actions, could be someone studying or teaching at in Israeli university. This is not a normal situation and our relationships with Israeli academics cannot be normal.

In spring 2002, searching for ways of putting pressure on Israel to move towards a just peace, even while the news from the Middle East became ever grimmer, in Spring 2002, Steven Rose and I, (actually before Jenin, which merely confirmed how terrible was the situation) observed that anomalously, Israel is defined as part of the European Research Area (ERA), which is rather wider than the European Union. Given Israel's appalling human rights record and its geographical location, its membership in the ERA takes some explaining. We therefore called for a moratorium on collaboration with Israeli academic institutions in multi-country bids for research funds from the European Union. This call, published in the Guardian, initially with some 120 signatures, was rapidly endorsed by academics throughout the ERA including a handful of courageous Israelis. I confess Steven and I never thought of Israeli academics signing as – to use a distinctly Christian and British simile - it would be like asking turkeys to vote for Xmas.

As most of the ERA money is directed towards science and technology, the practical implications were sharpest for researchers in those areas. Nonetheless academics from all the disciplines began to sign as an expression of their solidarity with their Palestinian colleagues. A number of elite scientific institutions based in different European countries as well as international European research organizations, morally troubled by the situation of the Palestinians and their Universities, sought ways of doing something positive without excluding Israeli institutions. They tended to come up with ideas such as twinning Israeli and Palestinians researchers, but failed to check whether such ideas were either practicable or acceptable to both parties. In most cases they have been neither. Under the current state of siege, Palestinian universities are starved of the sorts of research facilities – from libraries to lab equipment and consumables - which make meaningful collaboration possible. Israeli restrictions block delivery of materials – books, chemicals - to the universities even when provided by international sponsors. It is hard to be an active collaborator in research if the Israeli pass laws and check points prevent you travelling from the universities of the West Bank or Gaza to meet with your ostensible partners, and it is difficult to avoid the thought that such partnerships are seen by Israeli academics as a softer way of obtaining research grants when research money is hard to come by. This is why the European moratorium call was seen by Palestinian academics as an expression of international solidarity by university teachers. Until then, as Professor Hanna Nasir, then Birzeit University President, wrote to me, expressing his relief at the moratorium call: "We thought Europe had forgotten us".
 
The two British higher education trade unions have long felt disturbed about the situation of their colleagues in Palestinian universities. The National Association of Teachers in Higher Education (NATFHE) invited members to consider whether their institutions should maintain links with their Israeli counterparts, whilst the Association of University Teachers adopted the text of the moratorium letter as published in the Guardian. Meanwhile French colleagues set up a website for the British moratorium call, and also placed alongside it a more ambitious French call inviting academics not to referee grants or papers or otherwise collaborate with Israeli institutions. The signatories to the moratorium call rapidly climbed to many hundreds, and similar moves began to emerge elsewhere, in Australia and North America in particular. But the contiguity with the French call led to the situation in which a number of eminent academics (like Richard Dawkins in the UK or Etienne Balibar in France) who supported the moratorium felt that a boycott as in the French call pushed them towards a position they never had agreed to. The issue came to a head in the UK when Professor Mona Baker, who took a position close to the French, removed two Israeli based academics from the board of the journal she edited. Her action was picked up by the press, notably the strongly pro-Israel and pro-Zionist Daily Telegraph, which represented ‘the academic boycott’ as an attack on academic freedom, triggering a coordinated campaign of hate mail against the original signatories asserting that any criticism of Israel is sui generis anti-semitic. Both Professor Baker and later Professor Andrew Wilkie, in Oxford, who had expressed his unwillingness to accept an Israeli ex-army doctoral student, were subject to disciplinary proceedings by their universities. Mona Baker who fought back hard, demonstrated the charges were unsustainable. Mona Baker has continued to work with tremendous energy for the Palestinian cause.

The word ‘boycott’ worked in contradictory ways - negatively it moved the spotlight from Israel’s oppressive actions onto the distinctly abstract issue of what exactly was an academic boycott and when, if ever, it should be mobilized. Positively it underlined the moral revulsion felt by civil society that increasingly saw similarities between South African apartheid and the Bantustan-like divisions of the residual Palestinian territories. The moratorium was endorsed by Desmond Tutu, and leading ANC figures such as minister Ronnie Kasrils stated that Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians was even greater than that of Black South Africans under apartheid. Although the analogy with South African apartheid is limited it is worth reminding ourselves how slow that great boycott struggle was. The ANC issued the call in 1958 from Ghana; it was a year before it was remade in London It was not until 1965 that some 496 university teachers came out in support of the boycott in defence of two South African colleagues who were being persecuted for their support of the freedom struggle. One of the common elements between the South African and the Palestinian struggle was that the intensity of repression by both regimes has meant that both struggles needed support of the outside world. It was a long time before the UN finally adopted formal sanctions against South Africa and no less than 35 years from the boycott call before freedom came. For those who like me feared that terrible bloodshed was likely to accompany the dying moment of that vile racist regime, the boycott of South Africa is a vindication of the power of non-violent struggle. I fear that Palestine Israel has not got 35 years and the possibility of a just and non-violent solution even more remote.

What the Palestinians do have is the moral and legal right to return to their lands and no smooth diplomats can morally or legally dispose of that right. In Europe we have witnessed Jewish citizens reclaiming property stolen by the Nazis, we have witnessed the pre soviet system citizens reclaiming their property appropriated by a monolithic bureaucratic state, and as Europeans, we know that it is a painful but far from impossible process. Those Israelis in illegal possession of Palestinian property have to understand that this too can happen to them.

But to go back. The original moratorium call was made more than two and a half years ago. Despite support for the call from within the European parliament, the Commission has refused to change its policies. However, increasing numbers of academics and others from civil society have responded publicly or privately in enacting the moratorium or various forms of boycott. Furthermore, these moves have had a considerable impact in Israel itself, whose newspapers, increasingly uncomfortable with the analogy with the South African boycotts and sanctions, have given it considerable coverage. Israeli universities have begun to feel the impact, finding it necessary to organise institutionally ‘to defend their academic freedom and fight the boycott'.

An entire new impetus to the campaign was given in the spring of 2004 when Palestinian civil society, academics, trade unions and NGO’s under the umbrella of Palestine Call for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) made their call for a comprehensive boycott of Israeli academic institutions while seeking to connect to those Israelis who courageously continued to struggle for a just peace. PACBI’s call has both united major sectors of Palestinian civil society on this issue, but has also galvanised a new move within Europe and beyond. With the PACBI call for a cultural and academic boycott many of those who supported the ERA moratorium have felt the need to think again. One of the results of this rethinking has led to a group of British based academics establishing BRICUP – the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (www.bricup.org.uk) which both supports the boycott campaign and works directly with Palestinian academics without the need for them to seek Israeli partners. BRICUP is dedicated to the academic boycott but there are encouraging signs that it will be extended by artists, writers and musicians to include the arts and culture more widely. There are similar boycott campaigns developing across the world from Australia to the USA.

Boycott offers a strategy and a tactic of non-violence, of mobilising civil society nationally and internationally against the Israeli’s state policy of bloody repression and for a just peace. We know, from the historic experience of South Africa, that a boycott movement culminating in UN sanctions can produce justice and freedom. Yes the Palestine Israel situation is not identical with that of South Africa, but the analogy is politically helpful– because the eventual outcome was freedom. To explore how we may develop in detail (and the details are not easy) a strategy and tactic towards securing a just peace and a feeling of security for all the inhabitants of this small fraction of the earth’s surface - including those displaced by more than forty years of conflict- is both imperative and urgent.

 

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