A boycott that is truly academic

If a boycott of Israel is ever to work, it must broaden its appeal, not narrow its ambitions

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The word "academic", when attached to words such as purely, strictly or highly, seems to emphasise the supposed irrelevance of the cloistered, intellectual, life. When coupled to the word "boycott", though, the opposite effect is achieved. By contrast - to me, anyway - an academic boycott sounds blunter, more serious, more desperate than any other sort of boycott.

The word "academic", when attached to words such as purely, strictly or highly, seems to emphasise the supposed irrelevance of the cloistered, intellectual, life. When coupled to the word "boycott", though, the opposite effect is achieved. By contrast - to me, anyway - an academic boycott sounds blunter, more serious, more desperate than any other sort of boycott.

The phrase conjures up horrible visions, of bonfires of vanities, of book burnings, and of the persecution of heretics. A sanction against the free exchange of thoughts and ideas is a sobering sanction indeed, a closing of human minds to other human minds, a withdrawal of civilised discourse and a denial of the idea that fully shared and freely exchanged knowledge should be a universal human goal. Heavens, the implication runs, if even the academics are taking direct, practical, personal action against something, then matters must be serious indeed.

I don't think anyone would argue that the Palestine-Israeli conflict is not such a matter. The people of Palestine are struggling through their sixth decade as a stateless diaspora, some of them living under a brutal occupation, some of them in refugee camps that have been under the emergency administration of the UN for half a century, some of them living as exiles. This is bad enough, but ill-advised comparisons to the Holocaust do tend to ginger up Palestinian supporters, inspiring them dramatically to ask themselves if they, too, are guilty of standing by and doing nothing.

Interestingly, it was the child of a Holocaust survivor who made the first public proposition of an academic boycott of Israeli academic interests. Three years ago, the open university lecturer Steven Rose, his wife Hilary, and 120 co-signatories called for a moratorium on the special status under which Israel was treated as an EU nation for the purposes of university funding.

Very quickly, the debate widened, as academics began to discuss how far an "academic boycott" could, and should, go. Many felt it should go no further than the initial letter suggested, with some of the signatories - notably Richard Dawkins and Colin Blakemore, expressing alarm at the idea of a widening boycott. Meanwhile, for the pro-boycott campaigners, the high water mark of collective success came when a motion calling for a full boycott was debated passionately at the annual conference of the Association of University Teachers in May 2002. The motion was rejected by a majority of two to one, but the truth is that individual academics have been treating the issue as a personal matter of conscience ever since, with Israeli institutions reporting actual, if not significant, consequences.

For individuals caught up in the boycott, things have been different. One blameless 28-year- old PhD student was told he was not welcome at Oxford by a professor who was later suspended without pay for his action, an Israeli academic who used to chair Amnesty International in Israel was fired from the board of an obscure translation journal purely due to her nationality, and a liberal critic of the Sharon government was rejected sight unseen by another academic journal, again because he was Israeli.

Such interventions, which have all attracted international comment, add fuel to arguments suggesting that a targeted academic boycott of Israel does not make sense. Although the state of Israel takes succour from its pre-eminent position on the international academic circuit, the truth is that the Israel universities are the places where dissenting voices are often to be found. This, ironically, was why 10 Israelis could be found adding their names to the original letter.

At this year's AUT conference, though, the issue has arisen again, with several motions dealing with the same territory, tabled among others by English lecturer Sue Blackwell, who was responsible for the original 2003 motion. This time, though, after a couple of years of intense discussion, the strategy of those pressing for a boycott has altered. Instead of tabling action and seeking approval of it, the pro-boycotters appear to be battling for hearts and minds.

One of the motions, for example, simply draws attention to the fact that, since the last debate, a British Committee for Universities in Palestine has been formed that renews the call for a boycott (excluding Israelis critical of government actions), and a group of around 60 Palestinian academic unions and NGOs has published a statement of support for the boycott. Since many delegates last year were swayed by the fact that no Palestinians had themselves called for a boycott, this new development is seen as significant and is, therefore, being highlighted among delegates as much as possible.

It seems that among a majority of people at all of the Palestinian universities, the idea of an academic boycott is enthusiastically supported. In these institutions, operating under curfew, sometimes blockaded, often harassed by the Israeli state, as in all Palestinian institutions, the hunger for international help and support is huge. A boycott is all that is being offered, so of course it is supported.

Meanwhile, back at the conference, three further motions will draw attention to particular abuses of Palestinians alleged to have occurred at particular Israeli universities (all with decent records when it comes to accepting Palestinian scholars or working co-operatively with Palestine). To me, this suggests that pro-boycott campaigners have moved a long way away from the measured suggestion of the initial letter, and are now seeking to prick individual consciences towards highlighted and targeted campaigns.

This seems ridiculous, designed far more to suit the needs of those who want to "do something" than to alleviate the situation in Israel. If a boycott of Israel is ever to work, it must broaden its appeal instead of narrowing its ambitions. The oft-repeated argument is that a boycott in South Africa worked. But there are obvious reasons why the two cases are entirely different. The world agreedapartheid was wrong, including the US. The boycott was not just academic - and it was never targeted against individuals in the way this one has been - but also diplomatic cultural, economic, sporting, and very broadly based.

Passionate academics would do better to strengthen academic links with Israel, to support the Palestinian universities more vigorously, and to take their pro-Palestinian argument to the places around the world where it still has to win over support. Only then is a boycott a realistic proposition rather than a posture and a gesture. Meanwhile, the trouble with the whole debate is, indeed, that it is purely, highly and strictly academic.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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