Mail & Guardian, Africa's first online newspaper
08 June 2005
We are opposed to the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. We are equally opposed to the, at best, misguided, at worst, immoral attempts by the Association of University Teachers (AUT) to boycott the Israeli academic community. Such a boycott would do irreparable harm to the tenuous, but growing, Israeli-Palestinian relations and joint research at almost all of Israel’s universities.
For those of us who are active in the pro-peace, anti-occupation movements in Israel, the boycott only serves to make our work almost impossible. If there is a public space in Israel where liberal voices can be heard, it is the universities.
As far back as the pre-Oslo days, when the Israeli government forbade all relations between Israeli citizens and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the first significant links were forged through academic contacts. These links have grown during the past decade in the dialogues between Israeli and Palestinian academics.
It is ironic that it is precisely these voices of liberalism that are under attack by the voices of rightwing patriotism in Israel and elsewhere, in an attempt to delegitimise all pro-peace and anti-occupation voices, even to the extent of seeking to have some of them dismissed. But, to their credit, the Israeli academic establishment has refused to take this option. Instead, it defends freedom of expression as a basic right for all Israeli and Palestinian academics.
The boycott attempts from abroad only serve to strengthen the voices of the Israeli right, and their simplistic arguments that the British academic community is collectively anti-Semitic and -- in the words of one senior Israeli professor — is guilty of repeating what the Nazi-era Germans did to Jewish academics. This knee-jerk, somewhat hysterical, reaction goes down well with the Israeli Jewish public, large sections of whom remain convinced that they stand alone against a hostile world that wishes for nothing more than the extinction of the Jewish state.
The fact that some of the AUT boycott leaders have categorically stated that they see the state of Israel as being “illegitimate” brings into question the real motives behind their action. The boycott leaders may not see themselves as anti-Semitic, but they are guilty of inadvertently feeding into a growing anti-Semitism on British campuses.
Why do they pick on Israel? Why are they silent about transgressions of freedom in other parts of the world? Why do they falsely seek to equate the oppression suffered by black people in apartheid South Africa with Israel today? Yes, there are economic and political inequalities in Israel/Palestine, and academics are actively involved in redressing some of these injustices and promoting affirmative action programmes. Why do the boycott instigators continue to falsely claim that Zionism is effectively racism?
The purpose of a boycott has to be carefully thought out because it might not serve the cause it is meant to help, as was seen in apartheid South Africa. Britain played a leading part in the academic boycott of that country. The effects on the ground were calamitous: the English-language universities traditionally depended for their life blood on infusions of lecturers from abroad to bring fresh thinking, energy and courage. But they did not come and this contributed to a steep decline in university resistance to apartheid.
And the idea that certain universities or certain academics would be free from the boycott, is obnoxious. Is the AUT really prepared to be party to such a process of selection, based on political views or ethnic background?
In a letter from the European Commission, the European Union made its position clear, stating that “‘boycotting’ behaviour against Israeli scientists is totally unproductive and worrying ... is unacceptable in project(s) funded by the EU. The European Commission will do its utmost to discourage such an unacceptable way to penalise scientists from wherever they come from.” Boycotting Israeli academics would bring into question the right of British institutions to benefit from European or any other form of funding that assumes equality of access and opportunity by all, regardless of national, religious or ethnic origin and affiliations.
If the AUT is really concerned about the plight of the Palestinians, it should be investing time and effort in promoting more, rather than less, Israeli-Palestinian cooperative projects in the fields of health, education and technological advancement. It should be inviting Israeli and Palestinian scholars to take part in joint research projects, it should be hosting joint forums of political and social dialogue, and should be using its research expertise to contribute to the furtherance of peace and conciliation between the two peoples. By trying to promote a boycott, it is only serving to worsen relations between the two peoples and to open itself to charges of double standards.
David Newman is professor of political geography at Ben Gurion University in Israel and co-editor of the journal Geopolitics. Benjamin Pogrund is director of Yakar’s Centre for Social Concern in Jerusalem and formerly deputy editor of the Rand Daily