Lecturers to vote on boycott of three Israeli universities

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Sarah Cassidy | The Independent | 22 April 2005

Lecturers from Britain's leading universities will cast their votes today in a poll that threatens to split the academic world. They will vote whether to boycott three Israeli universities because of their alleged backing of government action in the occupied Palestinian territories. Union delegates will also decide whether to circulate a call from Palestinian academics and intellectuals for a blanket boycott of all Israeli academics unless they condemn the Israeli government's treatment of the Palestinians. The proposal for a boycott, which will be discussed this morning by the Association of University Teachers, will accuse the Israeli state of implementing an "apartheid" system. But the inclusion of the boycott motions for discussion at the annual conference of the AUTin Eastbourne has caused a row that has swept the academic world. If agreed, the vote will see academics sever all links with three of Israel's eight universities: Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem is accused of trying to confiscate land from Palestinian families in order to expand the campus. Haifa University is alleged to restrict the academic freedom of researchers who are critical of Israel. Both universities deny the claims. Bar-Ilan University has been targeted because it runs courses for Israelis in an illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank. Sue Blackwell, an English lecturer at Birmingham University, one of the authors of the boycott motions, said the boycott would mean academics refusing to visit the institutions or take part in joint-funded projects. She argued that Palestinian academics and students continued to suffer because of the "destruction wreaked by the Israeli government on the Palestinian infrastructure". Ms Blackwell said some first-year students from Gaza taking degrees in the West Bank had been "illegally deported" back to Gaza and could not complete their degrees. It will be the second time the boycott will have been debated by the AUT. In 2003, it was rejected after strong opposition from the union's executive. The executive is still opposed to the boycott but is prepared to support the circulation of the call for a boycott from Palestinians "for information and discussion". However, union leaders will try to persuade members to reject the boycott and have put forward a rival motion arguing that "peaceful resolution of the problems in the Middle East will not be brought about by the erection of barriers, but by open dialogue". Ronnie Fraser, chairman of the Academic Friends of Israel, has written to AUT delegates urging them to reject the motions which he argued were an attempt by "extremists" to demonise Israel. "The motions, if passed, would also lead to McCarthyite-style commissions being set up within the AUT to examine the political views of Israeli academics before reviewing their work or considering collaboration," he said. "Ultimately, they are an attempt by extremists to justify a discriminatory policy which demonises Israel." Professor Yeheskel Taler, deputy chairman of The Israel Council for Higher Education, urged the union to stay out of "arbitrary political activity". He said: "The accusations levelled against Israeli Universities are based on biased and misleading information ... We call on the AUT to abstain from arbitrary political activity that has nothing to do with the advancement of knowledge and science." A boycott has been a long-running, and contentious, issue. A petition urging non-co-operation with Israeli universities has been signed by hundreds of academics worldwide. The boycott debate For: Gargi Bhattacharya - 'A peaceful way of support' "I will be supporting the call for the boycott. Things aren't getting better there for our [Palestinian] academic colleagues; they say internationally emotional pressure is an important and a peaceful way for us to support them. There is huge concern that the Palestinian education structure has been destroyed. Potentially there's a lot of support. People opposing the boycott like to talk about academic freedom, but how can our Palestinian colleagues enjoy academic freedom when they don't even have freedom of movement - they can't get to work and their students can't get to classes. There can be no freedom under military occupation. I am trying to be hopeful about the peace plan but things haven't changed one jot for them. The author is a lecturer in cultural politics and religion at the University of Birmingham Against Avishay Braverman - 'An attack on dialogue' "I am dismayed at the proposed boycott. The motion is not only an attack on the fundamentals of academic freedom and dialogue but threatens to stifle work at the global forefront of research. Israeli universities, working with Palestinian and other Arab colleagues, conduct life-enhancing research into water management, desalination and cancer. We have achieved this with an ethos based purely on academic excellence and merit, rather than nationality, religion or political belief. A unilateral boycott unfairly identifies Israel as the only party responsible for the conflict, a stance contrary to academic standards of truth seeking. The attempt to punish Israelis at a time when there is a sense of optimism in the Middle East is detrimental." The author is chairman of the Israeli Association Of University Heads