Academic Boycott: “We do not want to continue business as usual”

Jonathan Rosenhead

Jonathan Rosenhead (67) has been a member of the British Committee for Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) for the past two years. He has been a member of staff at the London School of Economics since 1967 and Professor of Operational Research from 1987. He is now officially retired, but still teaches and researches there. He was a Labor Party candidate for Parliament in 1966 and was heavily involved in the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science for 20 years.

What are the origins of BRICUP, when was it founded and why?

BRICUP existed before I joined it, and I therefore cannot be precise about its origins. Certainly some of the key members were involved in the 2002 call for a moratorium on EU and European Science Foundation funding of Israeli cultural and research institutions, itself a reaction to Israel’s military reoccupation of the West Bank that year. I think that in the following year BRICUP grew out of that activity. It has achieved a relatively high profile quite quickly, but in fact consists of a relatively compact and self-selecting committee of activists.

An aim is to support Palestinian universities, staff and students. Did you have contact prior to the boycott call? What possibilities exist to support Palestinian academic institutions?

Some individual members had contact with Palestinian academics before the foundation of BRICUP – indeed several members’ academic [specialties] lie in some aspect of Middle East studies. Practically speaking, giving academic aid to Palestinian universities is a task … which a body such as ours, with effectively no money, run entirely on voluntary labour, can make little impact on. Some of us, however, are working within our own universities to initiate and develop bilateral links with Palestinian universities. I think we see this as a natural extension of our BRICUP work.

You write that you want to encourage individual academics to break their professional links with Israel? Have you had some success?

Yes, some individuals are publicly declaring their unwillingness to take part in events at or sponsored by Israeli universities. One example is the head of the department of cultural studies at one UK university. Another is a senior professor of classics at a different university. Many others are quietly declining contacts but without publicity.

At the Geneva BDS workshop, it was mentioned that it is important to publicise such individual boycott acts. How do you reach a larger public? And what is the reaction you face from Israeli institutions and the British media?

For the last 18 months we have had little problem getting media access. This is because the academic boycott became a major continuing story. I’ll speak about that when we come to talk about trade union-related activities. This is not, though, to say that we get equal air time with the pro-Israeli government lobby. They are well organised, and financed. And there is also still a very large sentiment in favour of the idea of Israel, even among those who regretfully wish that its policies were not what they are. The Israeli reaction has been quite hysterical, largely in reaction to decisions by the academic trades unions.

You state that one of your objectives is to put pressure on the EU and the UK government for the exclusion of Israel from the European Research Area. What did you achieve in this respect?

We have made very little progress with the European dimension of the issue. There are some MEPs who are sympathetic. This year they tried to add human rights conditions to a funding scheme, which might have excluded Israel, but could not get a majority for it.

For Switzerland, it is quite surprising to see academics to refuse to cooperate with academic institutions in Israel. There are very intense relations between all kind of research and educational programs between Switzerland and Israel. How do you explain that academics in Britain are engaged in such a campaign and officially take a position in favour of boycott?

I don’t know Switzerland well enough to generalise. In Britain there was a considerable culture of opposition to [Margaret] Thatcher in UK universities, and the Iraq war has generated a more muted but widespread dislike of the Blair form of Thatcherism. This left opposition has formed the core of the pro-boycott movement. It is probably true that the boycott has more support among union activists than among the wider body of academics.

What is your experience about other European countries, regarding the support for academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions?

The activity elsewhere has been patchy. Around 2002 there was a strong pro-boycott statement, which was widely supported by French universities, but much of that support crumbled in the face of threats from the French government. I have been told that there may be at least one institution with a boycott policy still in place. Of course, in many countries there is a strong individual de facto boycott, without explicit institutional or union decisions. Very recently (this month), a large number of Irish academics have signed up to a demand that Israel should not get the advantages of EU research funding.

Much has been argued about the “academic freedom” which would be restrained. How do you respond to those who argue that it’s important not to offend Israeli academics who could be important allies in the fight against the racist and colonialist politics of Israel?

There are two separate questions here. On academic freedom, yes, Israeli academics have a good degree of academic freedom, which many of them exercise to get influential roles in the development of the Israeli government’s oppressive policies. BRICUP is about to bring out a pamphlet on the boycott, in which this ‘collusion’ is detailed. The absence of elementary human rights for Palestinians – for example, the right to travel without obstruction – make any idea of academic freedom for Palestinian universities a mockery.

The second question is about the supposed role of Israeli academics as allies for change. There are indeed some courageous and principled academics. But they are shamefully few in number. And many of the most courageous support the boycott. We are willing to talk to any Israeli academic at any time about the boycott and the Israeli policies that have generated it. What we are not willing to do is to continue with ‘business as usual’. They need to see that not only complicity but also silence have their consequences.

The Palestinian Campaign for cultural and academic boycotts calls to exclude “conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state’s colonial and racist policies”. You call for supporting “Israeli academic colleagues working with Palestinian colleagues in their demand for self-determination and academic freedom”. Both definitions seem to be quite difficult. What is your criteria in the case of, for example, academics who have contact with Palestinians or are engaged in the solidarity work and oppose the Occupation but defend the Zionist concept of an Israeli state with a clear Jewish majority?

Your question makes some wrong assumptions. The PACBI call was for a boycott of Israeli institutions, not academics. The ‘exception clause’ in the original call has now been removed. Although it was well intentioned – to show that the Palestinians did recognise their friends among Israeli academics – its effect was to confuse. So now it is crystal clear – the target is academic institutions. We will not go to conferences there, engage in research collaborations sponsored or co-sponsored by Israeli authorities or universities, referee for publications based at Israeli universities. We will work within international academic organisations to oppose them holding conferences in Israel, we will refuse to serve as referees for publications based at Israeli universities, and so on. But we do not have inclusion/exclusion clauses for individual academics.

Are many of the main figures of BRICUP of Jewish origin? Do you specially address the Jewish community in Britain and abroad or what is the reason for this? Compared with other European countries, in Britain the Jewish intelligentsia seems to share quite radical or antizionist views; how do you explain this?

I don’t think that is true. I actually don’t know the ethnic or religious affiliations and origins of my BRICUP colleagues. A few of us are certainly Jewish, as I am. But there is a fairly diverse ethnic, gender, etc mix. And no, we don’t specifically address or target the UK Jewish community.

There is one such organisation, supported by many members of the Jewish intelligentsia. It is called Jews for Justice for Palestinians; however, it has not been able to bring itself to support the academic boycott. Its aim is to erode the rather overwhelming support for Israel ‘right or wrong’ that prevails among the general Jewish community here. However, it fears it would lose its function as a ‘conveyor belt’ for Jews critical of Israeli policies if it were to take the radical stance of supporting the boycott. I should say that this is probably not the way that they would explain their anti-boycott position.

So, while I think there is a strong opposition among intellectuals to Israeli politics, this does not as yet translate into equally strong support for the boycott, let alone anti-Zionism.

Now back to your activities. How do you address the unions? Is your lobbying limited to the teachers and academic unions or do you also reach other unions?

It is the trade union activities that have transformed BRICUP and the academic boycott campaign. The story is complicated somewhat by there being two unions (AUT and NATFHE) representing different types of university – which merged into one union (UCU) this summer. The initial action was in AUT, which in 2003 accepted the call for a moratorium on European funding for Israeli research. Two years later a motion to boycott two Israeli universities (Haifa and Bar Ilan) was, to everyone’s surprise, passed by the Annual Conference. That was when the issue became a media story worldwide, not least because of the convulsive Israeli reaction. The Israel Lobby here managed to get the resolutions defeated at a special conference a month later, but by now the issue was in orbit. In 2006, NATFHE passed a rather different pro-boycott motion. Now the policy will have to be fought out again in UCU. But each campaign, win or lose, just raises the profile not just of the boycott, but [also] of Israel’s outrageous occupation.

As a result of all this we have had the opportunity to talk at TU conferences, for example, those organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. But so far the activities among UK non-academic trades unions have been limited. Of course, the resolutions this past year by COSATU in South Africa, CUPE in Canada, and the Irish Transport Workers have been extremely encouraging.

Can you describe your concrete activities, that is, more lobbying, more conferences, and spectacular actions?

So far we have been rather responsive – for example, finding speakers when we are asked to address meetings at universities. This year we are trying to arrange a more coherent programme of meetings at key universities. Leading members are often asked to comment on impending media stories, or get to hear what is happening early through our now extensive network of contacts. So we can sometimes get out a timely press release.

The pamphlet, which I mentioned earlier, should be an important asset – getting our ideas out, changing the intellectual climate and providing a ‘handbook’ for those wishing to take the struggle on in their own localities. No spectaculars – we are not a membership organisation, have no cash, and hence do not have the resources to mount them. We liaise with other larger bodies and hope to influence them or collaborate with them.

Is there a difference in the way students and professors are engaged in the campaign?

As already stated, BRICUP is not a membership organisation. The membership of BRICUP committee is entirely university teachers, not students. We address other teachers as our target, though this also in principle includes doctoral students. We are attempting to change the minds of our colleagues, rather than pressure them through student protest activities. That said, it is often the case that students make up a significant proportion of the audience at meetings we address. On occasions there are large contingents roped in by the Union of Jewish Students, which can result in noisy meetings.

Do you cooperate with similar initiatives in other countries or create links to other universities and academics outside Britain?

We always respond as positively as we can to enquiries or requests for advice or cooperation. We would be delighted if there were parallel movements in other countries, and have every expectation that this will come about eventually.

Is there a historic precedent or example for academic and cultural boycott?

The obvious example is South Africa. This is a country with historic ties to Britain, which is maybe why the movement to boycott South African universities originated here. This was in 1965 when nearly 500 British academics published an open letter, in response to a request from the African National Congress for an academic and cultural boycott of their country. This eventually became official AUT union policy. That boycott was both academic and cultural. And now the academic boycott of Israel is also spawning a cultural boycott, with filmmakers in the lead.

How long will the boycott last?

The boycott will last until Israel negotiates an acceptable resolution with the Palestinians – that is, it will end when the Palestinians say that it is no longer needed.

This article was first published in Switzerland in BDS-Info. Amal Awad helped with editing of this interview.

Related Links

  • The British Committee for Universities of Palestine
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