Those who support the institutional boycott of Israeli universities are not a few fanatics but a wide range of people in the higher education union, the Association of University Teachers and British academia including a number (such as ourselves) who specialise in Middle Eastern studies.
Those who support the institutional boycott of Israeli universities are not a few fanatics but a wide range of people in the higher education union, the Association of University Teachers and British academia including a number (such as ourselves) who specialise in Middle Eastern studies. We value academic debate, but accept that academics mustn't ignore the wider political context.
The boycott aims to stimulate debate and political change. It is directed at particular institutions and, more generally, at the failure of Israeli academia to tell those in power the truth. In nearly four decades of the illegal occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights, there has been nothing from Israeli academia on the scale of the opposition in UK universities to the war on Iraq. We support this boycott, not from a false position of superiority but as part of the opposition to illegal invasion and occupation of sovereign territory. At stake are violations of human rights on such a scale that not to take action renders us co-responsible. As UK academics, we failed to stop the invasion and occupation of Iraq, but we continue to oppose our Government's action in this regard and to accept responsibility for war damages.
We welcome debate with those who are opposed to the Israeli government's policies but who do not agree with a boycott. They should not, however, be diverted from our common priority: challenging Israeli government policy and putting pressure on the British government and the European Union to act for justice in Israel and Palestine, as well as the Middle East more widely.
It is as members of the union that we have taken forward this particular form of action. Remembering the boycott movement against South African apartheid, many of us would like this to be part of a general economic, social and cultural boycott until an end to the Israeli occupation of lands conquered in 1967 is achieved. We are concerned as academics, however, with the role of Israeli academic institutions as a whole and the active engagement of some in the occupation. Bar-Ilan University is an extreme example but others are not above reproach. A standard argument in defence of Israeli universities is that they are more open than Arab universities. If true, how does this relate to the problem of occupation? And is it true? Consider Lebanon, where there are universities of every political, linguistic and religious stripe and a press for which academics often write and in which the Hebrew press is regularly translated.
The parallel with the long boycott movement of South Africa is that, as in the case of Israel, great powers have for years taken no serious action against major violations of human rights. Individuals and organisations of civil society need to explore non-violent means of sanction. Clearly, military occupation, land seizure and denial of refugee status are different forms of human rights abuse from those in apartheid South Africa; equally clearly, the hierarchy of legally defined citizenship turns on the question of religion in Israel. The parallel with South Africa is that such gross social injustice demands civil action.
For these reasons we support our Palestinian colleagues in their call for a boycott (full PACBI statement at http://www.bricup. org.uk). In an institutional boycott, the main thrust is towards institutional players. Individual academics have a complex and often ambiguous role within their own institutions. We wish to support those who speak out, and to challenge those who effectively support the Israeli occupation.
We must act now. The premise of the Oslo Accords - that without outside sanctions, negotiation between the parties could lead to a just peace - has been negated by successive Israeli actions: annexation of east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights; massive expansion of settlements in the occupied territories; the 2002 reoccupation; destruction of Palestinian Authority institutions; construction of the annexation wall; and devastation of the Palestinian economy, territory and society.
Israel leaves us with little choice but to support the boycott.
Professor David Seddon works at the School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia, and Dr Martha Mundy is reader in anthropology at the London School of EconomicsReuse content