The BDS debate in Great Britain is revving up. In February some 700 artists called for a cultural boycott of Israel. On the 27th of October, in an ad in the Guardian, 343 academics published a boycott call. They wrote: "As scholars associated with British universities, we are deeply disturbed by Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land, the intolerable human rights violations that it inflicts on all sections of the Palestini an people, and its apparent determination to resist any feasible settlement. Responding to the appeal from Palestinian civil society, we therefore declare that we will not: accept invitations to visit Israeli academic institutions; act as referees in any of their processes; participate in conferences funded, organised or sponsored by them, or otherwise cooperate with them. We will, however, continue to work with our Israeli colleagues in their individual capacities. We will maintain this position until the State of Israel complies with international law, and respects universal principles of human rights."
What has turned the latest round of the BDS discourse into a high profile affair was the involvement of JK Rowling, the hugely popular author of the Harry Potter series. Rowling rejected the boycott proposal, writing: "What sits uncomfortably with me is that severing contacts with Israel's cultural and academic community means refusing to engage with some of the Israelis who are most pro-Palestinian, and most critical of Israel's government.” She went on to say, “Those are voices I'd like to hear amplified, not silenced." "A cultural boycott places immovable barriers between artists and academics who want to talk to each other, understand each other and work side-by-side for peace."
Still, for Israel sympathizers Rowling’s position may be a mixed blessing. She noted "the Palestinian community has suffered untold justice and brutality, adding that “I want to see the Israeli government held to account for that injustice and brutality.”
Rowling’s involvement indicates the difficulties of managing the BDS discourse in Great Britain. The academics’ call to boycott Israel was published in the left-leaning Guardian newspaper. The Guardian, a frequent platform for anti-Israel journalism, has a relatively small circulation. But Rowling’s comments attracted a larger audience, including the readers of the Telegraph which is normally more sympathetic to Israel. Rowling’s fans used the social media to spread the debate further afield. It is probably safe to assume that comparing Israel to some of the more villainous characters in the Harry Potter series, an epic battle between good and evil, is not a great exercise in public relations.
UK academics boycott universities in Israel to fight for Palestinians' rights
British and Israeli governments condemn pledge by 343 professors and lecturers who criticise what they call ‘Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land’
Tuesday 27 October 2015 09.20 GMT
The declaration, by 343 professors and lecturers, is printed in a full-page advertisement carried in Tuesday’s Guardian, with the title: “A commitment by UK scholars to the rights of Palestinians.”
The pledge says the signatories, from a variety of universities in England and Wales, will not accept invitations to visit Israeli academic institutions, act as referees for them, or take part in events organised or funded by them. They will, however, still work with individual Israeli academics, it adds.
The advert says the signatories are “deeply disturbed by Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land, the intolerable human rights violations that it inflicts on all sections of the Palestinian people, and its apparent determination to resist any feasible settlement”.
In a statement on behalf of the organisers of the boycott, Prof Jonathan Rosenhead, of the London School of Economics, said Israel’s universities were “at the heart of Israel’s violations of international law and oppression of the Palestinian people”.
He said: “These signatures were all collected despite the pressures that can be put on people not to criticise the state of Israel. Now that the invitation to join the commitment is in the public domain, we anticipate many more to join us.”
The initiative brought immediate criticism from the British and Israeli governments. The British ambassador to Israel, David Quarrey, said he was “deeply committed” to promoting academic and scientific ties. He added: “As David Cameron has said, the UK government will never allow those who want to boycott Israel to shut down 60 years worth of vibrant exchange and partnership that does so much to make both our countries stronger.”
The Israeli embassy in London published a scathing response to the ad, saying: “Boycott movements only aim to sow hatred and alienation between the sides, rather than promoting coexistence.
“The only path to advancing peace between Israelis and Palestinians passes through the negotiation room. Israel has called time and again for the renewal of talks immediately, without any preconditions. Those who call for a boycott against Israel during a month which saw 45 stabbing attacks – in which more than 100 Israelis were wounded, and 10 were murdered – blatantly ignore the lives of Israelis, and the conditions necessary for peace.”
The advert was also condemned by Richard Verber, senior vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. He told Jewish News: “We would ask why these academics are singling out Israel in such a discriminatory fashion. At a time of immense, often barbaric, upheaval in other parts of the Middle East, Israel remains a beacon of academic excellence and progressive thinking.
“In the complex conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, boycotting either side will lead to zero progress. Their energy would be much better spent encouraging academic dialogue and relations between like-minded Israelis and Palestinians who believe in a brighter future.”
The advert comes less than a week after a group of writers, academics, MPs and others, among them JK Rowling, Simon Schama and Zoë Wanamaker, wrote to the Guardian to criticise the idea of such boycotts. The letter followed a pledge in February by hundreds of artists and musicians to instigate a cultural boycott of Israel due to the country’s “unrelenting attack on [Palestinian] land, their livelihood, their right to political existence”.
The counter-letter called boycotts singling out Israel “divisive and discriminatory”. It said: “We will be seeking to inform and encourage dialogue about Israel and the Palestinians in the wider cultural and creative community. While we may not all share the same views on the policies of the Israeli government, we all share a desire for peaceful coexistence.”