Boycotts and Academic Freedom and Responsibility

Palestinians inspects the rubble at the Islamic university in Gaza City following an Israeli air strike, 4 July 2006. (Magnus Johansson/MaanImages)

British university lecturers are to vote again this week on an academic boycott of Israel — will the new union this time around protest from its ivory tower or take a definitive stand against ritual human rights’ abuse?

In the wake of the surge in popular support for the appeal launched in 2005 by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, BRICUP (British Committee for the Universities of Palestine) has just published its pamphlet Why Boycott Israeli Universities? Its appearance coincides with the advent of the first annual general meeting in the UK of the University and College Union (UCU), the successor union for the recently merged Association of University Teachers (AUT) and National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE).

Both the AUT and NATFHE have had boycott resolutions in force at different moments in recent months, the AUT’s policy being overturned in a specially-convened meeting in 2005 following a high-octane publicity campaign from anti-boycott heavyweights. This year’s UCU conference will select a common position from four motions tabled for debate — with an Israeli intervention in train once again, fuelled this time by a seven-man task force of visiting academics including faculty from previously-implicated Haifa and Bar-Ilan Universities.

A distinctive aspect of BRICUP’s argument in 2007 is its application to all Israeli institutions. That is: boycott measures target funding for, and conferences and collaboration with, Israeli colleges, while promoting support for Palestinian academic and cultural bodies free from the conditional partnerships awarded to Israeli counterparts.

Although opponents respond with accusations of selective discrimination, supporters of boycott action can claim that the state of Israel has singularly distinguished itself by the frequency, severity and institutionalisation of its human rights abuses, committed over a protracted period of time in diverse policy guises. The BRICUP pamphlet reviews the objectives of academic boycott, responds to the allegation of anti-Semitism, and aligns Israel’s geo-demographic policy manipulations with South African apartheid. Self-serving and ad hominem objections to boycott are exposed and in particular the nonsense polarising boycott and academic freedom — a contention curiously escaping any serious critique by the literate media in the UK (and by the European Commission). The frequently-cited confusion of freedom of thought and expression with the business of academic production and exchange is disentangled, as is the deception that support for Palestinian institutions will necessarily be blighted by freezing co-operative links with Israeli universities.

The Engage website (, whose contributors were prominent in engineering the AUT’s volte face over boycott policy in 2005, has already pre-empted debate by posting up its opposition to PACBI, echoing the British Government’s and European Commission’s mantra that discrete bridge-building initiatives are the best way to influence the impact of Israeli Government policies on Palestinians. Lack of concrete achievement over the decades tends to cast doubt on the integrity of this belief, not least because it is a view held by an administration currently promoting a joint-embargo on humanitarian and economic aid to the Palestinian Authority that is intensifying privation throughout the Occupied Territories. On this topic Engage is mute, but, regarding the academic boycott of Israel, founder-member Adrian Cohen asserted in The Jerusalem Post: “Whatever its motivation, the boycott campaign is wholly destructive: an assault on basic civil liberties, an undermining of Jewish social emancipation and the undermining of any prospect of the emergence of a progressive consensus within the community,” adding as afterthought: “it does nothing to help the Palestinians” (The Jerusalem Post, 13 May 2007).

Those who have to teach under the military occupation will have a clearer perspective. Palestinian universities — the isolated example of Al-Quds University’s collaborations with the Hebrew University excepted — do not agree that ‘business-as-usual’ represents the best hope for future educational development (even a survey of academic and administrative staff at Al Quds University, focussing on Israeli-Palestinian joint projects, had found over 70 percent support for a diversity of boycott propositions).

Neither do Palestinian students agree that boycott action is anomalous: a movement formed at the Arab American University at Jenin, the Green Resistance group, has succeeded in having Israeli-produced Tapuzina fruit juice banned from its campus. Throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip there is a growing awareness that, because of strictures placed by Israel on commercial activity, Palestinians are obliged indirectly to contribute to the financing of their own occupation. In the absence of free economic access to international markets, such campaigns to support locally-produced goods are gaining ground. Backing for PACBI is in-depth and widespread, coming from more than 170 organisations, including amongst others: students’ rights organisations; the Federation of Unions of Palestinian Universities’ Professors and Employees; the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions; NGOs’, Palestinian journalists’, physicians’ and engineers’ associations; regional chambers of commerce and industry … the roll call is extensive.

Nor is the experience of academic collaboration essentially positive while military occupation persists. Difficulties with joint ventures between Israeli and Palestinian counterparts had resulted in the Palestinian Council of Higher Education in 2005 warning against co-operation in the scientific and technical fields between Palestinian and Israeli universities. Tied co-operation initiatives are resented in part because of the legitimacy conferred on the occupying academic establishment but also because of their inappropriate design either for peace-making or for their Palestinian context. Taking up this issue, twenty health service organisations, universities and trades’ unions published an open letter in May 2005 criticising such projects for the following reasons:

  • Initiatives tend to be externally imposed on a resource-starved environment, offering anomalous financial inducements to encourage participation from service professionals;
  • Schemes do not reflect Palestinian priorities: projects often target solutions endemic to the existence of military occupation itself;
  • Schemes never address the structural impediments to development of Palestinian scientific, health, medical, educational, social and economic sectors that are grounded in the military occupation;
  • Israeli partners can even be involved in parallel projects for facilitating the military presence;
  • Joint micro-scale ventures provide the illusion of an effective peace-making dynamic in excess of such projects’ eventual reconciliatory potential;
  • The overall result is the politicisation of research activities.

    The letter called instead for international bodies to invest directly in Palestinian institutional infrastructure — allowing Palestinians free choice of venture partners — in order that an indigenous skills base should evolve to sustain autonomous development (from Education Under Occupation (Discovery Analytical Resourcing) —

    In spite of ongoing human rights violations in the occupied territories, Israel has continued to benefit in its global academic relations from the fundamental freedoms that human rights conventions protect. Perversely, as BRICUP points out:

    “The academic freedom of Israel has generated illegal, racist and oppressive behaviour by Israeli universities; complicity in its government’s expansionist and oppressive policies; and in response to the suffering imposed on the Occupied Territories and the violation of Palestinian academic freedom — deafening silence.” (Why Boycott Israeli Universities?, p18)

    Failure of established political directorates to bring Israeli policies into line with international norms has left Palestinian civil institutions to call upon the moral conscience of international counterparts and solidarity associations. In his article appearing in The Guardian, 20 April 2005, Ilan Pappe — then senior lecturer in Political Science at Haifa University - also argued: “… Outside pressure is effective in a country where people want to be regarded as part of the civilized world, but their government, with their explicit and implicit help, pursues policies which violate every known human and civil right. Neither the UN, nor the US and European governments, have sent a message to Israel that these policies are unacceptable and have to be stopped. It is up to the civil societies, through organisations like yours, to send messages to Israeli academics, businessmen, artists, hi-tech industrialists and every other section in that society, that there is a price tag attached to such policies.”

    The vote at the UCU’s general meeting will take place at the end of May 2007, but, whatever the mandate then adopted by the Union, the empirical, rational and ethical justification for reviewing academic collaboration with Israeli institutions will persist until government policy in Israel is persuaded to change: “An academic boycott is both a personal and a collective act made in solidarity with our Palestinian colleagues whose academic freedom is currently denied” (Why Boycott Israeli Universities?, p32).

    Nick King is a freelance analyst who visited Palestine in 2002-2003, where he
    spent some time as a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement, as
    well as travelling independently for research purposes. He variously provides
    analytical support for European initiatives promoting and defending human rights
    and humanitarian solidarity in the occupied Palestinian territories

    Related Links

  • British Committee for Universities of Palestine
  • On the Academic Boycott of Israel, Virginia Tilley (27 May 2007)
  • Boycott the Israeli Academy Now!, Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (26 May 2007)
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