How Israel sees the boycott

The Association of University Teachers is blacklisting two Israeli institutions for their attitudes towards Palestinians. Eric Silver reports from Jerusalem on whether the AUT's criticisms of Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities are justified
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The Independent Online

o boycott this university among all the universities in Israel is so bizarre and so distorted that I simply can't understand it," said Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, the president of Haifa University, one of two Israeli academic institutions blacklisted last week by Britain's Association of University Teachers (AUT). "We are the most pluralistic and most tolerant university in Israel." He could hardly be expected to say less, but he made out a strong case, which he said the AUT never let him present.

o boycott this university among all the universities in Israel is so bizarre and so distorted that I simply can't understand it," said Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, the president of Haifa University, one of two Israeli academic institutions blacklisted last week by Britain's Association of University Teachers (AUT). "We are the most pluralistic and most tolerant university in Israel." He could hardly be expected to say less, but he made out a strong case, which he said the AUT never let him present.

Some 20 per cent of Haifa's 16,500 students are Israeli Arabs, the same proportion as Arab citizens make up in the country as a whole. A month ago the university elected an Arab professor to the key post of dean of research. Majed el-Haj, a Muslim sociologist who specialises in problems of Arab education and of Jewish immigrants, will be the first Arab dean in any Israeli university.

Ramzi Suleiman, a Christian Arab, chairs the department of psychology, which alongside its general courses runs special programmes for Arab clinical psychologists and Arab educational counsellors. The two professors are among about 30 Arab faculty members at Haifa, which claims more Arab teachers and researchers than any other in the country. Professor Ben-Ze'ev admitted that was "far below what it should be," but insisted the number was rising. "It is my policy," he explained, "to promote Arab lecturers and Arab professors. But we don't just appoint somebody because he is an Arab. We appoint somebody who is an Arab and a good scholar."

The AUT's case for singling out Haifa University was based on the claim of Dr Ilan Pappe that he is being hounded out of his post by "Zionist loyalists," who he says dominate history and political science studies in Israel. Pappe, a historian who has revealed some of the murkier truths behind the creation of the Jewish state, is an outspoken advocate of the boycott.

At Haifa, he said in an interview with the daily paper Ha'aretz, "the authorities cleanse anyone who dares to cast doubt, as part of his professional work, on the foundation of Zionism."

Professor Ben-Ze'ev responded that the university did not intend to discipline Dr Pappe, which he said might be interpreted as violating his academic freedom. But he urged him to "follow his own advice" and boycott the university by resigning.

Dr Pappe's long-running quarrel with the university peaked when he defended Teddy Katz, an MA student, after the university rejected Katz's research paper alleging a massacre committed by Israeli soldiers in the Arab village of Tantur during the 1948 war. One lecturer proposed then that Pappe should be disciplined, but the university took the matter no further.

When some of the old soldiers sued Katz for libel, he withdrew the massacre charge, but insisted later that he had nothing to apologise for. An independent committee, appointed by the university, concluded that the thesis was "grossly distorted." Tom Segev, a historian and newspaper columnist identified with the Israeli left, endorsed the university's decision after reviewing Mr Katz's research material and listening to his taped interviews with witnesses.

"Teddy Katz wrote a very bad dissertation," Dr Segev told The Independent. "Some people told him the opposite of what he says they said. Also, he quoted some people who had no way of knowing what happened. Massacres did take place at that time, but as a historian you have to prove it."

The AUT was on firmer ground in targeting a second university, Bar-Ilan, near Tel-Aviv. Bar-Ilan was founded by the religious Zionist movement, the driving force behind the settlement of occupied Palestinian territories after the 1967 war. The university has supervised courses at the College of Judea and Samaria in the West Bank settler-town of Ariel. Uri Avnery, a veteran Israeli peace campaigner, denounced Ariel as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which forbids an occupying power from settling its own citizens in the occupied territory. "The creation and maintenance of Ariel entails untold hardships to the Palestinians who happen to live nearby," he wrote in an open letter telling Bar-Ilan's president that they brought the boycott on themselves.

"They [Palestinians] are exposed to ongoing confiscation of their land so as to feed the land-hunger of the ever-expanding Ariel settlement, and their daily lives are subjected to increasingly stringent travel limitations in the name of 'settlers' security'."

But most liberal Israelis agreed with Ha'aretz, which condemned the boycott of both universities as "an intolerable attack on freedom of inquiry and thought." And many left-wing Israeli academics who agree with Mr Avnery on the occupation, reject the boycott.

One of them, Victoria Buch, chastised British critics for striking a posture of moral superiority. "This seems to be based on the presumption that Israeli academics support their governments, and the American and British ones do not," she wroteon an anti-occupation website. "Who are you to say so? Hundreds of Israeli academics have signed statements in support of army refusers [soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories].Exemptions from the boycott are supposed to be provided for the anti-occupation Israelis. But who is qualified to judge, and what are the criteria?"

Mina Teicher, Bar-Ilan's vice-president for research, argued that Ariel was one of five regional colleges - all the others were inside Israel - that Bar-Ilan university supported to help students from outlying areas enjoy higher education.

In any case, the supervision was being phased out as Ariel became self-sufficient academically. Only three per cent of its courses were now being supportedby Bar-Ilan and no new ones were being undertaken.

Like most Israeli universities, Bar-Ilan has collaborated with Palestinian universities. "We had a big mathematics research project with Al Quds University in East Jerusalem," Professor Teicher, herself a leading mathematician, reported. "But it has become harder for them to co-operate with ussince the intifada broke out in 2000. Some of them were threatened by their own people. It's difficult, but we are still making efforts. Science should bring peace, not the other way round."

Academics' arguments

The boycott motions accuse Bar-Ilan University of being "directly involved with the occupation of Palestinian territories contrary to United Nations resolutions" because it supervises degree programmes at a college based in the settlement of Ariel, near Nablus in the West Bank.

In a separate motion, AUT members are urged to boycott Haifa University until it commits itself to upholding academic freedom, and in particular ceases its victimisation of academic staff and students who "seek to research and discuss the history of the founding of the state of Israel".

The rebellion begins

The Association of University Teachers is under intense pressure to drop its boycott of two Israeli universities. According to Professor Geraldine Van Beuren, a law professor at Queen Mary, University of London, and the University of Cape Town, the boycott contravenes international law. "In seeking to protect the human rights of Palestinians, the AUT boycott runs counter to international human-rights law," she says. An earlier attempt by the University of Paris VI to boycott Israeli universities was criticised by the UN.

The signs are that her views are shared by some AUT members. Under a union rule, a group of rebel academics has collected 25 signatures calling for a special council meeting to vote down the decision. The AUT received the plea on Tuesday this week. Under the rule it must hold the meeting after 21 days and not later than 35 days hence.

The rebels have formed a group called Engage, with its own website - liberoblog.com - which seeks to pursue projects that link British academics with Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. It is critical of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and of Ariel Sharon, but it believes in dialogue. Two of the principal rebels are Jon Pike, senior lecturer in philosophy at the Open University, and David Hirsh, sociology lecturer at Goldsmiths College. Pike criticises the boycott as follows: "I am a philosopher and I am in favour of talking to people and arguing with them," he says. "When they act in a way that I disagree with, I think I should tell them so, not turn my back on them. Second, the debate was held undemocratically. There were no speakers taken against the boycott motions. Third, singling out Israel in this way is inconsistent and unjust. There are many other nations engaging in serious infringements of human rights - for example, China, Russia, Burma, North Korea and Syria. More than that, I think the debate was pursued by the boycotters in a dishonest and disingenuous way. The AUT council has defeated calls for a general boycott of Israeli universities in the past, so the boycotters tried to make specific and individual cases but then presented them as a decision to boycott 'a quarter of Israel's universities'. The analogy between Israel and South Africa is politically illiterate. Israel's universities are relatively open institutions, certainly compared with Arab ones. The conflict in the Middle East can only be resolved by a two-states solution. In South Africa there were not two nations."

According to David Hirsh, the AUT's position focuses on the wrong people. To refuse to talk to people in higher education is not sensible, he says. "Israeli universities are real universities, not machines that reproduce government propaganda. They're the best of Israeli society, and Haifa University has a seriously high proportion of Palestinian academics and students. It is a mistake to compare Israel with apartheid in South Africa. Israeli universities are mixed; Palestinians and Jews are educated together. In Israel, people are not formally classified by race. And Palestinians have the vote. Yes, there are discriminatory laws and there is equivocation on equal rights, but it's not apartheid."

Lucy Hodges

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