The Guardian 12 December 2002
Until a few months ago, Dr Oren Yiftachel was the kind of Israeli dissident that foreign critics of his country found admirable. He was born on a socialist kibbutz half a century ago. During his 20s and 30s, as that strain of cosmopolitan idealism began to lose its influence on Israel, he went abroad to live and travel. In 1994, he returned to Israel to work in the geography department at Ben Gurion University in the arid south of the country, where the particular proximity of Palestinian settlements and the challenges of desert life in general had made collaboration with Palestinian academics a local tradition.
Over the next eight years, with his open-necked shirt and his open, inquisitive face, Yiftachel became a familiar irritant to Israeli rightwingers. He made a point of working with Palestinians whenever possible. He published books and articles about his government’s illicit appetite for Palestinian land. He told Israeli newspapers that, “Israel is almost the most segregated society in the world.” He set up an Arab-Israeli journal that so enraged some Israeli conservatives that they campaigned to have it banned.
Given these radical credentials, Yiftachel did not anticipate any problems when, last spring, he submitted a paper to a left-leaning periodical called Political Geography. He had written for the respected British journal before. It specialised in the same probings of territory and power as he did. This time Yiftachel’s paper, co-written with a Palestinian academic, Dr Asad Ghanem of Haifa University, described Israel as “a state dedicated to the expansion and control of one ethnic group”; the paper concluded that such societies “cannot be classified as democracies in a substantive sense”.
Yet when Yiftachel heard back from Political Geography, he got a shock. The precise details of what happened are disputed but, according to Yiftachel, the paper was returned unopened. An explanatory note had been attached, he says, stating that Political Geography could not accept a submission from Israel.
“I hadn’t read the paper,” says David Slater, one of the periodical’s editors, who is also a geography professor at Loughborough University and a prominent British supporter of Palestinian causes. “But I was familiar with some of the author’s previous work… I was not sure to what extent he had been critical of Israel.” Slater says he hesitated about what to do with the paper, “for a while”.
“I protested,” Yiftachel says. Through the summer and autumn, it is agreed by both sides, there was a tense exchange of email. Among the editors of the periodical, Slater admits, there was “a slight disagreement” over how to proceed: his colleagues were keener on the paper than he was. Eventually, Yiftachel says, Political Geography was “forced” to consider his work; but between May and November, whenever he asked if it was actually going to be published, the journal simply responded that the paper was “under consideration”.
Finally, in mid-November, between six and eight months after Yiftachel first submitted his paper, depending on whose account you believe, Political Geography informed him that it would publish his article as long as he made “substantial revisions”. Yiftachel was asked to include a comparison between his homeland and apartheid South Africa.
Yiftachel agreed. Yet he still sounds slightly puzzled at how he ran into such difficulties with an apparent political kindred spirit like David Slater. Slater maintains that Political Geography is not officially hostile to contributions from Israel. But then, almost in passing, he mentions something interesting. At some point last spring or summer, while he was pondering Yiftachel’s paper, Slater signed a petition calling for an academic boycott of Israel.
The idea first surfaced as a polite, almost diffident letter to this newspaper on April 6. “Despite widespread international condemnation for its policy of violent repression against the Palestinian people, the Israeli government appears impervious,” the letter began, somewhat predictably. Yet then it proposed a novel solution: “Many national and European cultural and research institutions regard Israel as a European state for the purposes of awarding grants and contracts. Would it not therefore be timely if a moratorium was called upon any further such support unless and until Israel abides by UN resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians… “
The letter had been written by two British academics: Steven Rose, professor of biology at the Open University, and his wife, Hilary, professor of social policy at Bradford University. Besides their signatures, the letter listed 123 other academics as supporters, mostly European but a few from the US and Israel.
All this did not come completely out of the blue. Nine months earlier, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign had called for a British boycott of Israeli agricultural produce, with some success. Other boycotts of Israeli tourist resorts, Israeli-manufactured goods and Israeli investment opportunities had been long been mooted on the internet. In liberal British academic and literary circles, which for years had contained critics of Israel, there had been renewed stirrings of protest against the Israeli government during 2001 and early 2002: circular letters of support for Palestinian writers, collective statements of outrage at Israeli military tactics, and occasional flashes of public anger, such as the poet Tom Paulin’s repeated comparisons of Israeli nationalists to Nazis. Finally, in the fortnight before the Roses published their letter, there were the daily television and newspaper images from Israel and the Palestinian territories. As invading Israeli tanks ground parts of Jenin to dust and Palestinians bombed chattering cafes in Tel Aviv and civilians on both sides were killed in greater numbers than for decades, it was hard for the politically conscious in Britain and elsewhere not to take sides. “There was this cumulative frustration,” says Steven, “that European governments were not doing more to stop things.”
However, what seemed straightforward in April now seems less so. The original, quite limited, boycott proposed then has grown into something larger and less well-defined. As the Roses’ petition has acquired hundreds more signatures, other, more radical calls for academic boycotts of Israel have been launched from Britain and abroad. Rival counter-petitions condemning the boycotts have been set in motion. And around all this has swirled a vast and ferocious debate about Israel and the Palestinians, about anti-semitism, about academic freedom, about boycotts in general. International political figures have been drawn in: from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who issued a statement supporting the Roses and comparing their protest to the struggle against apartheid, to Tony Blair, who last month reportedly told Britain’s chief rabbi that he was “appalled” at the academic boycott and would “do anything necessary” to stop it.
One obvious but significant feature of a political dispute involving academics is that they tend to relish arguments. They have access to the internet. They have international contacts and horizons. And since April, as the violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories has continued almost unabated, universities in both places have been directly affected. Israeli campus buildings have been bombed; Palestinian universities have been blockaded by Israeli troops. Whatever your view of the academic boycott, it has become increasingly difficult to dismiss it as pure ivory tower politics.
Yet the extent to which an actual academic boycott of Israel exists, beneath all the rhetoric for and against, has remained mysterious. In April, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education voted for “all UK institutions of higher and gurther education… to review - with a view to severing any academic links they may have with Israel”. In May, the Association of University Teachers voted for a funding boycott of Israeli universities. But when I rang both unions almost six months later to ask what concrete effect these resolutions had had, a Natfhe press officer said, “I’m unaware of any action being taken so far. Given the size and complexity of higher education institutions, implementing a boycott will take a long time… We’ve asked our branches to engage in a discussion as to what an academic boycott should be.” At the AUT, no one even seemed able to remember what boycott they had agreed.
There have been instances of individual British academics boycotting Israel. In June, two Israeli professors were removed from advisory positions on a pair of small academic journals put out by a Manchester publishing firm called St Jerome. The editor of the journals and the co-owner of St Jerome, Mona Baker, was and is - for the time being at least - a professor of translation studies at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (Umist). She briefly became the most infamous academic in Britain and is currently subject to an investigation by Umist, the limits of which have remained ominously unstated. The inquiry is expected to conclude within weeks.
In April, an English lecturer at Birmingham University called Sue Blackwell removed the links to Israeli institutions from her personal website. A dispute about her underlying attitude to Israel has flickered intermittently since, between her and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Blackwell’s website has been scrutinised by Birmingham University; last month it was cleared of alleged breaches of university regulations. As with Baker, the very length of the controversy generated by what originally seemed a small political gesture suggests that openly boycotting Israel may be a hard and lonely road to take.
More discreet withdrawals of cooperation, however, may be another matter. As Yiftachel discovered, the workings of academic journals and academia in general, with its intricate, stop-start machinery of international collaborations, research grants and references, paper submissions and promotions and assessments - much of this screened from outsiders by traditions of confidentiality, and by anxiety about damaging careers - provides plenty of opportunities for boycotts and semi-boycotts and temporary boycotts that never declare themselves as such. At some Israeli and British universities, and in some Jewish pressure groups, there are persistent and growing murmurs about boycott-related discrimination. Some cases are minor but revealing. “I am concerned about my return to England at the end of the academic year,” a British lecturer at an Israeli university writes to a friend in London. “English friends have made me feel like a settler for being here.” Other cases are more substantial - a thesis supervisor at a British university, it is alleged, is currently refusing to support an Israeli student’s work due to the student’s nationality - but impossible to prove without the breaking of professional confidences. Other cases are verifiable but add little to the overall picture: St Jerome Publishing recently refused to fulfil an order for a single book placed by Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
On British campuses, the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) claims that anti-Israeli posters and pamphlets and stickers are appearing and anti-Israeli meetings are being held with increasing frequency. Alleged hostility to Jewish student societies and Jewish individuals is also on the rise. “Students are incredibly worried,”says Michael Phillips, the campaigns director of the UJS. “The boycott may have started with reasonably legitimate aims, but it’s a very different thing now.”
In Israel, it is starting to have an effect on everyday academic life. “Every year we send most of our research papers abroad for refereeing,” says Professor Paul Zinger, the outgoing head of the Israel Science Foundation. “We send out about 7,000 papers a year. This year, for the first time, we had people writing back - about 25 of them - saying, ‘We refuse to look at these.’” At the Academic Study Group on Israel and the Middle East, a fund for joint projects between Israeli and British universities, the number of people applying for grants has fallen by a third. “There is a palpable slowing down of academic activity,” says John Levy, who helps run the fund. “We’re not even attempting to set up [joint] workshops. What we’re encountering is very many people who are saying, ‘Can we simply delay matters?’”
Not all of this change, Levy says, is directly because of the boycott. Anxiety about visiting Israel amid the current violence is putting off foreign academics, too. But security concerns can be a useful cover for people who want to withdraw cooperation without causing a fuss. “Since the intifada began we’ve had conferences that people have said they would come to but haven’t,” says Frank Schuldenfrei of the British Council in Tel Aviv. “If someone looks you in the face and says, ‘I’m not coming over because my wife doesn’t want me to come,’ who can say if that’s the reason? There is no doubt that in certain circles Israel has become less popular in the last six months.”
In one of the curious symmetries of politics, strong supporters of the boycott offer the same sort of vague-but-potent anecdotes about its impact as the boycott’s opponents. “We’ve had specific instances of people reporting in, as it were, saying they’ve cancelled such and such a project with Israeli colleagues,” says Steven Rose.
Colin Blakemore, an Oxford University professor of physiology who was one of the original signatories of the Rose letter, says with certainty, “I do not know of any British academic who has been to a conference in Israel in the last six months.”
This matters more to Israel than you might imagine. Academic activity, and particularly science, are areas in which the country excels. “In physiology and neuroscience, physics and computer science, the Israelis certainly punch above their weight,” says Blakemore. Schuldenfrei calls Israel “a very important player in the academic marketplace”. For a small nation without abundant natural resources, this has had obvious benefits. From agriculture to arms manufacturing, Israel has become more technology-driven and successful than comparable nations.
At the same time, though, the nature of Israel’s academic pre-eminence makes it vulnerable to a boycott. “We are top of the world league with Switzerland and, I think, Sweden for the proportion of research projects that are international collaborations,” says Zinger. “Close to 40% of papers published in Israel involve cooperation abroad.” For complicated and expensive scientific research, there is often no alternative; yet for the weightiest historical and political reasons, campus links between Israel and its Arab neighbours have always been limited. Instead, Israel has developed academic connections with the west, and Europe in particular - which has its own equally weighty historical reasons, notably the holocaust, to treat it generously. Israel receives subsidies from EU funds for scientific research, the only non-member state to do so. “In the most recent four-year framework programme, we paid in O150m,” says Zinger, “and we got research grants of O165m.”
Back in April, when Steven and Hilary Rose composed their letter, targeting this cashflow seemed clever politics. “We both had an academic-political interest in EU science policy,” says Hilary, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. “We tried out the letter on a few friends, and they said it was a goer.” There is a pause. Then her husband says: “It’s not the first time we’ve done something like this.”
The Roses are sitting side by side, sharp-eyed and slouching confidently in their casual, donnish clothes, on a low sofa in their living room in north London. Together and separately, they have been involved in left-wing political causes for decades. They speak in long, fluently argued paragraphs.Since April, the Roses have written newspaper letters and articles defending the boycott and the right of people such as Mona Baker to interpret it in their own way. In August, Steven Rose, who is Jewish, publicly renounced his entitlement to Israeli residence and citizenship. At times, he and Hilary can make the boycott sound almost beyond criticism. It has generated important debates, they say. It has put pressure on an unjust government. It has Palestinian support: “It is rather touching,” says Hilary, “to have the chancellor of Bir Zeit [the main Palestinian university] write to you.” Finally, the boycott has reasserted the important right of people to challenge Israel without being anti-semitic. Steven Rose gets up from the sofa and disappears upstairs to fetch a piece of paper. It is a copy of a letter from Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt and dozens of other prominent Jews to the New York Times in 1948, condemning the then brand-new state of Israel for containing extreme Jewish nationalists of a “fascist” nature, who had recently carried out a “massacre” of Palestinian villagers. The boycott, the Roses say, is in this tradition of constructive criticism.
Yet occasionally an unease slows their rhetoric. “Our initiative has produced a certain number of would-be supporters,” says Steven, choosing his words carefully, “who are pathologically anti-Jewish.” He produces another letter, this time with a recent date and a plastic folder around it as if it were poisonous.
“Dear Professor Rose,” it begins, “I write to congratulate you on the campaign to boycott Israel which I believe you and your husband are sponsoring. The problem is that it does not go far enough. We need to set up a boycott of all Jewish businesses, organizations and individuals. Hit the Zionist Yids where it hurts them - in their pockets… ” The typed letter ends with a shaky blue signature and an address in south London. “We called the commission for racial equality,” says Hilary crisply.”We are keeping the letter in plastic so we can give it to the police.”
Since April, the boycott has awakened other ugly impulses. The Roses’ email addresses, like those of many people drawn into the debate have been flooded daily with abusive messages. “Become a suicide bomber and blow yourself up… if you died the world would be a better place… what you are doing is worse than what the Nazis did… you sonderkommando [concentration camp collaborator] scum… ” From the day the first boycott petition appeared, what you could call a counter-boycott has been organised against the Roses and their allies. Like the boycott itself, this campaign has its moderates and extremists, its public gestures and undeclared initiatives, its concrete steps and carefully directed threats.
In June, Patrick Bateson, a professor of animal behaviour and provost of King’s College, Cambridge, who had signed the Rose letter, became involved in a correspondence with Henry Gee, a senior editor at the science magazine Nature. Gee made clear his objections “as a Jew” to the academic boycott. Then he continued: “I would not, of course, do anything as crass as ‘boycott’ papers from you and your colleagues that might happen to pass across my desk at Nature, though I would get much less pleasure in reading them… knowing what I do of your attitudes… [These] confirm my view… that Cambridge, and particularly the university, would be an uncomfortable place for me to visit.”
“The implicit threat was plain,” Bateson says. When contacted recently, Gee declined to discuss their correspondence further. Bateson says he will continue sending articles to Nature: “It may be an interesting test case.”
Colin Blakemore’s experience since he signed the Roses’ petition has been more bruising. “I was contacted by Steven just two days before it was submitted,” he says. “I was a bit hesitant about signing, because I saw a lack of balance. I asked for a sentence condemning Palestinian terrorism. But there was not enough time - the letter was about to be sent out.”
So he signed it anyway. Shortly afterwards, a French translation of the petition began circulating, which was significantly more aggressive than the original, with Blakemore and the other initial signatories’ names attached.
“I found myself being sucked in,” he says. Over the summer, although he still had links with Israeli academia Blakemore found himself facing a public campaign. He was, and is, president of the Physiological Society. Without naming him, a motion was proposed by a Jewish member for the society’s annual general meeting stating that, by supporting the boycott, Blakemore was breaking an important international convention on academic freedom, statute five of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). Since the 30s, the Physiological Society and other ICSU members had agreed to behave “without any discrimination on the basis of… citizenship, religion, creed, political stance, ethnic origin, race, colour, language, age or sex”. For many opponents of the academic boycott, this is a clinching argument.
In the end, Blakemore never faced a hostile annual general meeting. “My train was late.” The motion was withdrawn, he says, “after a lot of talk”. But he remains anxious about the consequences of his involvement in the boycott and how his stance became distorted: “I am deeply concerned for relations with my Jewish colleagues. The misrepresentation sticks. You can’t explain your personal position to everyone.”
In truth, boycotts are blunt weapons. Even the most apparently straightforward and justified ones, on closer inspection, have their controversies and injustices. Since the academic boycott of Israel began, both its supporters and its opponents have frequently cited the cutting of campus links with apartheid South Africa as an example of a less contentious action. But the South African boycott did not necessarily seem like that at the time.
The first calls for a general boycott of South Africa came in the 50s. Yet it was not until 1980 that the UN passed a resolution urging “all academic and cultural institutions to terminate all links with South Africa”. Opposition to this boycott persisted throughout the 80s: conservatives around the world disliked such anti-apartheid initiatives; campus libertarians perceived a loss of academic freedom; and some liberal South Africans argued that their universities, as centres of resistance to apartheid, made precisely the wrong targets.
Then, as now over Israel, some boycott participants seemed to become infamous almost by accident. In 1985, it was Professor Peter Ucko of Southampton University, who reluctantly banned South Africans, including personal friends, from an archaeological convention. This time, the boycott’s anti-heroes have been Mona Baker and her husband Ken.
Unlike the Roses, and many of their petition’s signatories, the Bakers are not prominent or politically connected academics. They now move in a lurid new world of death threats, feverish messages of support, conspiracy theories about Zionist networks, and computer viruses sent almost monthly to sabotage their business. For critics of the Bakers, they have received support from some awkward quarters. The leftwing, anti-Zionist Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, is in regular, approving contact; Ken describes him as “fabulous”. In Israel, Pappe’s career has been regularly threatened by right-wingers who disapprove of his pro-Palestinian views. Like the harassment of Palestinian students by the Israeli army, this is a tricky fact to take on board for those who oppose the academic boycott on the grounds that it threatens campus freedoms in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
So far, the boycott feels less substantial than the issues around it. “It is annoying but there is no damage,” says Paul Zinger of the Israel Science Foundation. “It doesn’t seem that it has gathered any momentum.” The Roses insist it is too early to judge the boycott’s effectiveness. “Boycotts are slow,” says Hilary. “We didn’t eat South African oranges for about 1,000 years.” Steven adds: “It’s water on stone - eventually water on stone wears away.”
There are signs that the turbulent experiences of some of the boycott signatories have made them more, not less militant. At the Physiological Society, Colin Blakemore has set up a study group to examine when conventions about academic freedom should give way to boycotts. Its conclusions, he hints, are not likely to be favourable to Israel. More broadly, he has come to question whether academia should be insulated from politics at all: “Is it really true that scientific research is such a special activity that it should be last on the list when it comes to boycotts?” Steven Rose goes further: “Academic freedom I find a completely spurious argument in a world in which science is so bound up with military and corporate funding.”
Even Oren Yiftachel, for all his difficulties with Political Geography, agrees that academia cannot and should not function in a vaccuum. Yet that does not mean he has become a convert to the academic boycott of Israel. His objections are not just personal or philosophical, but tactical. Recently, he went to America with a Palestinian colleague to speak about Israel. “In all our lectures, we would talk about roadblocks, terrorists, a colonial situation. Everyone in the crowd would ask about whether the boycott was anti-semitic.”