Academic boycott of Israel: yes or no?

Submitted by AWL on 11 May, 2005 - 9:46

On 26 May the Association of University Teachers (AUT) will hold a special conference to debate a recently-decided policy of academic boycott on two Israeli universities, Haifa and Bar-Ilan (at an ordinary conference on 22 April). The recall discussion is being held after protests from members. Below a supporter of the boycott and two opponents of the boycott present their different views.

We need positive links

Robert Fine, Warwick University

I too would like to see the top brass of Israeli universities coming out more strongly against the occupation, but we don’t call for a boycott of British Universities for not denouncing the war in Iraq or not denouncing internment in Northern Ireland. In any event, I do not think that an academic boycott of Israeli universities is correct in principle.

Boycotts of universities always undermine academic freedom. The university sector in Israel is currently under attack from the right wing for being too liberal, particularly on the Palestine question. Many academics need our support. There is much original work being undertaken on history and politics, which undermines many of the reactionary ideas which are used to justify the occupation, settlements and the wall.

Academics have little power in the political arena. What we can do is, through teaching, research, publication and broadcasting, attempt to mobilise ideas for freedom. Working with people positively seems far more likely to help create conditions that will end the occupation than the negative boycott.

The boycott is a call to do nothing about the occupation at all. It plays directly into the hands of the right wing in Israel as well as a growing body of anti-semitism in Europe.

I was an activist in the Anti-Apartheid Movement. The analogy between South Africa and Israel is superficial, but in any case the same mistake was made in South Africa as is now being recommended in Israel. In Israel higher education is quite integrated. In South Africa universities were not very integrated, but like Israeli universities exercised a degree of independence and academic freedom.

It is a matter of basic solidarity with Palestinians

By Steven Rose, Secretary, British Committee for the Universities of Palestine

In 2004 nearly sixty of the most prominent academic, cultural and professional associations and trade unions in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza, including the Federation of Unions of Palestinian Universities‚ Professors and Employees and the umbrella organization of Palestinian Non Governmental Associations in the occupied West Bank made the following appeal:

In the spirit of international solidarity, moral consistency and resistance to injustice and oppression, we, Palestinian academics and intellectuals, call upon our colleagues in the international community to comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonization and system of apartheid, by applying the following:

1. Refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions;

2. Advocate a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions;

3. Promote divestment and disinvestment from Israel by international academic institutions;

4. Exclude from the above actions against Israeli institutions any conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state’s colonial and racist policies;

5. Work toward the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural associations and organizations;

6. Support Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly without requiring them to partner with Israeli counterparts as an explicit or implicit condition for such support.

Solidarity’s banner headline reads “An injury to one is an injury to all” yet in the Workers’ Liberty pamphlet on Palestine and most recently in Camila Bassi and her cosignatories article “Against the boycott of Israel” (14 April) you reject this call for support.

Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, its consistent breaches of human rights (to say nothing of the academic freedom of Palestinian teachers and students), and the complicity of Israel’s own academic community in these abuses, clearly don’t count for you. Solidarity for whom, one may well ask?

A disingenuous decision

Jon Pike, a lecturer at the Open University, organised the campaign to get the Association of University Teachers (AUT) to hold a special conference to reconsider its decision, at its regular conference on 22 April, to boycott Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities in Israel.

Both the decision of the AUT on 22 April, and the way it was made, were wrong. First, the approach was disingenuous. It rested on circulating a call from Palestinian non-governmental organisations for a cultural boycott, but the proposers argued that this would just be circulated for information.

No-one is against information being circulated, but when a trade union circulates particular strategic documents to its branches, this means an implicit endorsement, and it’s dishonest to say otherwise.

The decision for a boycott was taken after a curtailed debate in which no speakers were taken against the boycott; and it now looks as if the conference was manipulated by the pro-boycotters, who had set up their delegates in an unrepresentative way over a period of months. The AUT is not a very healthy union in terms of members’ participation, and that allowed pro-boycotters to get on to delegations simply by volunteering to go.

If the boycotters were honest they would have gone for a motion to boycott all Israeli universities. The only way they were able to win even a partial and temporary victory was by dissimulating.

After the vote, lots of AUT members thought it was a terrible mess, but were doubtful about the idea of a special conference. I thought that the boycott should be overthrown by the membership, as a political act, not just stifled by legal objections.

I got the 25 names of delegates needed to demand a special conference within two days. Then technicalities took a bit longer, but the whole process was only six days.

Members of the AUT have the right to elect new representatives for this conference. In some local associations they are doing that. In other cases the pro-boycotters are trying to hide from the membership until the deadline has passed (Monday 16th, noon).

From the conference I want to see, first, an overthrowing of all the boycott resolutions. Second, a commitment to building direct links between the AUT and Palestinian unions and the Histadrut. Third, a clear statement against anti-semitism.

Some people might wonder why a statement against anti-semitism is necessary. We don’t think it is anti-semitic to criticise Israel, but we do understand why many Jewish members of AUT, and others, have resigned. The AUT is committed to a policy which singles out Israeli academics and applies to them a political test as a precondition for academic discussion and engagement; it applies to academics at Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities, and to no other academics in the world.

Formulae like Zionism equals racism, or Zionism equals apartheid, are false. The AUT must be a union that is healthy, diverse, and comfortable for Jewish members who identify themselves with Zionism.

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