West Bank college benefits from backlash against British boycott of Israeli academia

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Chris McGreal in Ariel | The Guardian | 26 May 2005

"If you're going to talk about occupation, England occupied countries throughout history, and didn't the English open universities? And didn't it help the local population?" - Leonid Greenblatt, maths lecturer at College of Judea and Samaria Union to revisit sanctions vote after claims of anti-semitism The College of Judea and Samaria, occupying a hilltop in the Jewish settlement of Ariel, is reaping the benefits of the British academic boycott. Within days of the Association of University Teachers' decision last month to cut ties with two Israeli universities - one of them because of its links to the Ariel campus - Israel's cabinet voted to upgrade the college to the first university in the settlements. "The students are very pleased. The British boycott has really helped them," said Samuel Shaki, a psychology lecturer at the college. "But I can't say I'm happy. It's a shame that they [the AUT] want to kill all the benefits that cooperation brings because of anti-semitism and naivete. Who are they to tell me what I should think?" The AUT will revisit the boycott decision today after a furore in Britain and abroad. But nowhere has the reaction been as furious as in Israel, with even some strong critics of Ariel Sharon's government saying the sanctions are at best misguided, and at worst an attempt to legitimise deeply held prejudices. Shlomo Sand, a history lecturer at Tel Aviv university, said Israeli academics were "seething" over the boycott. "The university email network nearly collapsed from the force of the anger. "Furious professors stalked the corridors of the temples of higher knowledge," he said. "At intellectual cocktail parties and dinners there was ceaseless indignation: how had the respectable British Association of University Teachers dared to boycott two of Israel's universities? And we had thought, naively, that only the French were flagrant anti-semites." The dispute has also divided Palestinian academia, after Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, angered colleagues by criticising the AUT's move. The boycott targets two universities. Haifa was shunned for allegedly pressuring staff who are critical of the government. Bar-Ilan, an institution favoured by rightwing academics, was targeted for its ties to the Ariel college, which is located in an illegal settlement of about 20,000 Jews deep inside the West Bank. The AUT voted for sanctions in response to a call by Palestinian groups for foreign academics to sever contact with Israeli universities, but to exempt individuals who spoke out against the occupation. "What are they saying?" asked Mr Shaki. "You have to demonstrate against the government and tell it to get out of the occupied territories or we won't accept your work? Fine, but if we invent anything you won't use it? If we find a cure for something you won't accept it?" A common refrain among teachers at the Ariel college is that the boycott is hypocritical because British academics are not shunning universities in other countries responsible for oppression or illegal acts, beginning with their own, given that Britain invaded and occupied Iraq. It is a view that one maths lecturer, Leonid Greenblatt, is particularly attuned to. He was born in the Soviet Union 60 years ago and was discriminated against when he studied and worked at Moscow University. "Thirty years ago it was hard for Jews to get into the maths or physics departments because we were Jews and no one outside raised a fuss," he said. "It wasn't important to academics in Britain that we were being persecuted. "If you're going to talk about occupation, England occupied countries throughout history, and didn't the English open universities? And didn't it help the local population?" About 320 of the 7,000 students at the Ariel college are Arabs, but the local Palestinian population can hardly be said to benefit. The neighbouring village of Salfit lost large tracts of land to make way for the settlement, and soon its residents are to be penned behind the West Bank barrier which will reinforce Israel's grip on the settlement. The boycott of Haifa University is seen in Israel as the result of intrigues involving Ilan Pappe, a political science lecturer whose claims of intimidation were instrumental in the AUT decision. Haifa has called the boycott defamatory. The issue of Bar-Ilan University is more complex. It has overseen degrees at the Ariel campus for about 15 years, a tie it is now ending. Bar-Ilan's rector, Yosef Yeshurun, attributed the boycott in part to anti-semitism and said the sanctions cut to "the very core of academic life". But critics said the university's attempts to assert that politics had no place in academia were undermined by Bar-Ilan's embracing of the College of Judea and Samaria, and in the government's decision to upgrade it to a university. Mr Sharon's education minister, Limor Livnat, said that upgrading the college "is designed to support the settlement vision out of a national interest of the state of Israel". Tom Segev, a renowned Israeli author, said that far from being an attack on Israel, the boycott of Bar-Ilan Uni versity hit the intended target. "The boycott of Bar-Ilan doesn't hurt the state as a whole, but at most, those Israelis who support the perpetuation of the Israeli presence in the territories," he wrote in the newspaper Haaretz. Mr Shaki fears that even if the boycott is overturned, it will have a negative effect. "One of my colleagues in Britain is a psychology lecturer at Dundee University, Martin Fischer," he said. "I haven't spoken to him for a while, but it makes me wonder what he will say." Contacted by the Guardian, Mr Fischer declined to confirm that he had worked with, or even knew, Mr Shaki.