The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel has called upon their colleagues in the international community to “comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions” as exemplified in the struggle to abolish apartheid in South Africa through diverse forms of boycott. The call was made at an international conference on “Resisting Israeli Apartheid Strategies and Principles” at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London on Sunday 5 December.
The campaign urges the international community to refrain from participating in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions; to suspend all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions; to promote divestment from Israel by academic institutions; and to condemn Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural associations and organizations - as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonization and system of apartheid.
Giving the welcoming remarks at the conference, the author, journalist and playwright Victoria Brittain said “many of you may not know how very, very sharp was the struggle for South Africa’s freedom. Ten years after majority rule it is easy to forget that just a very few years before that we in the anti-apartheid movement were deeply absorbed in battles over perception, over media bias, over western government indifference and downright lying, which mirror exactly what the solidarity movement is doing for Palestine today.”
Tom Paulin, Fellow in English at Hertford College, Oxford University, said in the keynote address that “a struggle against embedded prejudices and institutions which aim to equate people into tribes and enforce apartheid is an imaginative struggle, a struggle which does not demand that a work of art should be constrained to, and interpreted by, a single ideological struggle.” He mentioned the work of the late Edward Said who in his book “The End of the Peace Process” wrote that only the force of unyielding principle, held on to from a position of moral strength, was capable of delegitimising apartheid all over the world.
Ilan Pappe, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Israel’s Haifa University, told the conference that the boycott should be comprehensive for it to work, even though he would be adversely affected. “The academics in Israel are closely and almost integrally associated with the army, the political system and the industry. Rather than being a critical agency vis-a-vis these pillars of the society it has become one of them - culpable as they are in sustaining the occupation mainly by providing moral and ‘scientific’ explanations for the oppression in the occupied territories.”
Lawrence Davidson, Professor of Middle East History at West Chester University, described himself as “a nice Jewish boy fallen from the faith.” He told the conference about a number of divestment initiatives in the US, including a scheme by the Presbyterian Church to selectively divest stocks from its $8 billion investment portfolio in corporations who profit from supporting Israel’s unlawful occupation of Palestinian territory. “Charges of anti-Semitism come fast and furious, but there is an important difference between being anti-Semitic and being anti-Zionist,” Davidson added.
Ur Shlonsky, adjoint Professor of Linguistics at Geneva University said in recent years “the construction of anti-Semitism has been extended to cover criticism of the policies of the State of Israel towards the Palestinians and over hostility towards Zionism.” He said “the self-proclaimed leadership of the Jewish communities in Europe and elsewhere has made it its task to convey and to sustain a Jewish identity which is centred on solidarity with Israel and to simultaneously denigrate and marginalise all other forms of Jewish identity.”
There was a strong presence of British Jews at the conference, as well as Jewish academics from universities in Australia, Israel, and Switzerland. Few Arabs were present, but two Palestinians, Lisa Taraki and Omar Barghouti, travelled from Israel and the West Bank to support their call for an academic boycott of Israel and to draw attention to the British Committee for Universities for Palestine (BRICUP). They called on the academic community to support Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly without requiring them to partner with Israeli counterparts.
The British media picked up on accusations by “Jewish” groups that the SOAS Palestine Society was inciting hatred because it called the conference “Resisting Israeli Apartheid: Strategies and Principles.” In the Guardian, Polly Curtis reported that Danny Stone, of the Union of Jewish Students organised a counter-meeting at SOAS. One of the aims of the World Union of Jewish Students, of which the UJS is a constituent member, is to “promote Zionism, strengthen the ties of Jewish students worldwide with the State of Israel as the central creative factor in Jewish life, and to pursue this through the encouragement of Aliya, strengthening the State of Israel and increasing the ties between the Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora.”
The Jewish students picketing the conference were very amicable however. Despite all the fuss, some of them even attended the conference - though they may have disagreed with the politics. Interestingly, the mainstream British media failed to point out that there was a talk by Moty Cristal and David Cesarani on the Geneva Accords also at SOAS University on the same day as the conference. Under these circumstances the accusation that SOAS is “institutionally biased” seems plainly false. As Colin Bundy the Director of SOAS pointed out: “We probably do more on the Middle East than any other university.”
Victor Kattan is a Director of Arab Media Watch. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. BRICUP’s website is found at at www.bricup.org.uk. The web site for the International Campaign to Defend Palestinians’ Right to Education at Birzeit University is right2edu.birzeit.edu.