Is it time to take sides?

With injury, destruction and death assailing Palestine's universities, has the time come for an academic boycott of Israel, asks Tom Wilson
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The Independent Online

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is devastating Palestinian universities such as Birzeit, Jenin, Bethlehem and Hebron. Many staff and students have been killed or injured. Buildings and equipment have been smashed. Electricity and water supplies have been cut off. If and when the Israeli army withdraws, it will take years to repair the damage. Nothing will bring back dead staff or students.

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is devastating Palestinian universities such as Birzeit, Jenin, Bethlehem and Hebron. Many staff and students have been killed or injured. Buildings and equipment have been smashed. Electricity and water supplies have been cut off. If and when the Israeli army withdraws, it will take years to repair the damage. Nothing will bring back dead staff or students.

Israeli sources contest this description of academic life in Palestine. They deny the deaths anddestruction, and talk simply of "restrictions". The truth cannot be easily verified, asIsrael refuses to allow observers in. But it is clear from the reports of Palestinian academics, peace activists and returning UK students that deaths, injuries anddamage are extensive. Palestinian university websites (see www.palestine-net.com/education) talk of massacres.

What should UK academics do? Increasingly, the view is that it is not enough to deplore or condemn – we should suspend academic ties with Israel. That could mean recalling UK staff or students in Israel; suspending collaborative research; declining to publish in Israeli journals; refusing to attend conferences, and so on – measures similar to those of the academic boycott of South Africa. It would be subject to legal and financial practicalities, though many US universities have already recalled staff and students from Israel for safety reasons.

The Palestinian universities are precisely the institutions most capable of building a civil solution. They are developing the educated, professional Palestinians who are at the forefront of arguments for thepeaceful development of a Palestinian state and a rational dialogue. Their international academic links foster just this approach.

Israelis argue that it is unfair to single out Israel. Why not sever academic ties with Russia over Chechnya? Perhaps we should – but that would not exonerate Israel. Neither would the fact that it is a democracy. The military occupation is illegal, contrary to UN resolutions, strongly opposed by the EU, Russia and the US, and dangerous to global peace. None of these applies to Chechnya, Tibet or Syria. And Britain has a responsibility, having played a large role in creating the state of Israel.

But should academics maintain links with Israel in order to urge a more sensible policy? Defenders of Israel claim they are "draining the swamp" or "cutting off the head of the snake". They accuse their accusers of anti-Semitism. That approach does not, frankly, suggest that much academic debate or reflection is going on that a boycott might damage. And history allows us to judge. Nelson Mandela describes the boycott of South Africa as a turning point. Talks can be ignored while Israel is allowed to believe it is accepted as a full member of the academic community, and the pressure of academic work these days gives little practical opportunity to embark on difficult political debate around computer screens or in seminars on agricultural techniques. A boycott is simple, clear and effective.

Is a boycott contrary to academic freedom and independence? True, academics should normally resist being enlisted in support of one side or another. They are servants of the truth. But those are the values that should lead academics to act in support of Palestinian universities. Academic freedom cannot be exercised by the dead and injured in the ruins of classrooms and laboratories. Nor by Palestinian scholars who are denied access – unlike Israeli scholars – to the international academic community. Showing we cherish our freedom to teach,think and publish means supporting those who cannot. Any solution to the Palestine issue will involve careful research and analysis, much of it by Palestinians themselves. That is not possible while the conditions for such work are being destroyed. Equally, a boycott would support the minority in Israel, many of whom are academics arguing for peace. It would help show their colleagues that supporting academic values is incompatible with continued military occupation of Palestine and destruction of Palestinian universities.

Universities champion reason, not force. So should their staff. Suspending academic ties is a rational step. If UK academics care about their profession, they should support a boycott.

The writer is head of the universities department of NATFHE, which yesterday called for a boycott of Israel

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