The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel deplores the unabashed pro-Israel bias of UK officialdom displayed during Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s visit to occupied Jerusalem. Brown’s pro-forma criticism of Israeli colonizing activities notwithstanding, the visit became an occasion to underline the UK government’s prejudice in favor of Israeli policies of apartheid, dispossession and colonial expansionism. Instead of pressuring Israel to fulfill its obligations under international law, Brown bent over backwards to reward Israel in an arena in which it prides itself, that of academic and scientific research, despite ample evidence indicating the Israeli academy’s complicity in the state’s occupation and apartheid policies.
Media reports have made it abundantly clear that the 20 July Israeli-British announcement of the establishment of the Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership (BIRAX) is politically motivated. The project, described by The Independent (UK) as “a major new academic exchange program, which will help to undermine attempts to boycott Israeli universities,” is meant specifically to undercut UK, Palestinian and international academics’ calls for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. It lends political and material support to the Israeli effort to maintain a veneer of respectability in the world academic community, a community increasingly unwilling to do business as usual with the Israeli academy. Not only have Israeli universities built organic partnerships with the state’s military-security establishment responsible for maintaining the occupation and other forms of Israeli oppression, they have also failed for decades, as have all Israeli academic unions and professional associations, to take a public stand against the most profound Israeli military violations of the Palestinian right to education.
Far from being at the forefront of the struggle for human rights and against occupation and racism, as often deceptively depicted, Israeli academic institutions have never condemned the occupation, the denial of Palestinian refugee rights, or the system of racial discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. They have all failed to condemn even the policy of prolonged military closure of Palestinian universities back in the 1980s, in one case extending for four consecutive years; the ongoing refusal to grant permits for Palestinian students and academics to travel abroad, or between Gaza and the West Bank, to pursue their studies or academic development programs; and the severe curtailment of access to education by hundreds of thousands of Palestinian school and college students through an elaborate network of military checkpoints and roadblocks. Furthermore, the Israeli academy is complicit in encouraging its academics to serve in the Israeli reserve army, making most of them part-time occupation soldiers in every academic year.
Revealing another explicitly political — not to mention cynical — objective of this new Israeli-British initiative, an anti-boycott Israeli source is quoted in a recent media report as saying that “By [BIRAX] choosing starting academics, when the unions start discussing a boycott there will be more people who have had some contact with Israel and will have some knowledge. We’ve discovered that 80 percent of those who attend the union meetings don’t know anything about Israel or the issue. So it’s sort of a value added element to the program.”
What is particularly offensive about the Israeli-UK declaration is the active sponsorship of BIRAX by the British Council, a UK agency with a long history of work in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). Now, the British Council has declared its blatant bias in assuming a leadership role in this politically motivated project. Its purpose to “build mutually beneficial relationships between people in the UK and other countries” will ring hollow to Palestinians. So will its claim that it operates “at arm’s length from the UK government.”
While this will not be the first British experience in “constructive engagement” with an apartheid state, as British support for apartheid South Africa stands out in the history of that country, its timing attests to British betrayal of any semblance of commitment to human rights and the rule of law. This generous British award comes at a time when Israel is continuing apace the construction of its colonial wall and settlements in defiance of the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion of July 2004; committing unprecedented war crimes in its brutal siege on 1.5 million Palestinians in occupied Gaza, severely curtailing their access to health and educational services and condemning them to abject poverty and, in thousands of cases, slow death; intensifying its extra-judicial killings and indiscriminate attacks on civilians; uprooting hundreds of thousands of fruitful trees and destroying the environment; demolishing homes; and cutting up the OPT into isolated Bantustans, slowly destroying the economy as well as social institutions, all in a systematic fashion aimed at forcing more Palestinians to leave their lands.
Nevertheless, what is heartening about this recent development is the fact that the academic boycott of Israel is becoming a reality, a force to be recognized and reckoned with. It is becoming increasingly clear that the sustained efforts of conscientious academics in the UK and the world at large to hold the Israeli academy accountable for its complicity in Israeli colonial and racist policies are bearing fruit. This should encourage us to press with our call for an institutional boycott of the Israeli academy.