Steven Rose: Why pick on Israel? Because its actions are wrong

Academic freedom, it appears, applies to Israelis but not to Palestinians

Share

The University and College Union annual congress last week voted by a two-thirds majority to organise a campus tour for Palestinian academic trade unionists to explain why they had called for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, and to encourage UCU members to consider the moral implications of links with Israeli universities. Not surprisingly, this overwhelming vote met with a roar of hostility from what we have learned to call the Israel lobby.

Our government, long accustomed to sitting on its hands when any serious attempt to censure Israel is made, predictably joined the chorus. More surprisingly, the Independent's editorialist and its columnist Joan Smith followed along. The boycott, we are told, damages academic freedom, picks on Israel, and encourages anti-Semitism on British campuses.

Entirely suppressed in this harrumphing has been any thought about why Palestinian university teachers and their union, as well as all the NGOs in the Occupied Territories, have called for a boycott. Academic freedom, it appears, applies to Israelis but not Palestinians, whose universities have been arbitrarily closed, Bir Zeit for a full four years. Students and teachers have been killed or imprisoned. Attendance at university is made hazardous or impossible by the everyday imposition of checkpoints. Research is blocked by Israeli refusal to allow books or equipment to be imported.

Even within Israel itself, some universities sit on illegally expropriated land, Arab student unions are not recognised and there are increasing covert restrictions on Arab-Israelis (20 per cent of the population) entering university at all. No Israeli academic trade union or professional association has expressed solidarity with their Palestinian colleagues a few kilometres away across the wall, though the boycott call may finally encourage them to do so.

When challenged, Israelis cite examples of collaboration with Palestinians: bridges, not borders. Fine, but because Palestinian academics from Gaza or the West bank are not permitted to enter pre-1967 Israel, how real can such collaborations be? If academic freedom means anything, it must be indivisible. And what are Palestinians to make of the uncensured insistence by senior Israeli academics that their family size constitutes a demographic threat to the Jewish state?

But why should academics, culture workers, architects and doctors in the UK, who have all in recent months called for forms of boycott of Israel, take such action? Why pick on Israel, we are asked. After all, as Joan Smith points out, there are lots of ugly regimes around. How about boycotting the UK until troops are removed from Iraq? But boycott is merely a specific tactic, a non-violent weapon available to individual members of civil society. It is only one form of protest: many boycott supporters are at least as actively involved in the various campaigns against the UK's illegal war in Iraq as in any boycott of Israel.

No one asks those campaigning against China's occupation of Tibet why not Israel or Darfur? If opponents of our boycott call want to make a case for boycotting Cuba (one boycott that Israel, following its American paymaster at the UN, habitually supports) they are free to do so. The issue is not "Why Israel?" but "Why not Israel?" Yet the secular western press, so willing to express discomfort with states that describe themselves as "Islamic Republics" is seemingly untroubled by the ethnic assumptions underlying the claims of a Jewish republic.

Further, it is precisely because Israel prides itself on its academic prowess (just as South Africa did of its sporting prowess) that the idea of an academic boycott is so painful. Israel has uniquely strong academic links with Europe, and despite its Middle-East location and constant breaches of European legislation on human rights, receives considerable financial research support from the EU. That's why the Israeli cabinet felt it necessary to set up an anti-boycott committee under that well-known campaigner for a greater Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, and why teams of Israeli academics toured the UK before the UCU vote to try to block the boycott call.

Lurking behind the thinking of even well-meaning opponents of the boycott is that it is in some way anti-Semitic. This ignores the fact that the boycott is of Israeli institutions, not individuals (so it would affect the tiny number of Palestinian academics in Israeli institutions, but not a Jewish Israeli working in the UK or US). Second, it ignores the fact that the British Jewish community is itself intensely divided over Israel, between those who will defend Israel at all costs, and the increasingly vocal critics who insist "not in our name". Even a cursory look at the signatories of the various boycott calls will show the large number of prominent Jewish figures among them. It really isn't good enough to attack the messenger as anti-Semitic or a self-hating Jew rather than deal with the message itself, that Israel's conduct is unacceptable.

What could be a more democratic way of bringing debate on to university campuses than the instruction to the UCU to organise a campus tour for Palestinian academic trade unionists to engage in discussion before UCU members decide whether to support their call for a boycott? Those who cherish the idea of the university as the house of reason will surely welcome the opportunity for calm discussion of a controversial issue.

The writer is secretary of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine

Andreas Whittam Smith is away

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 per annum + commission: SThree: Sthree have an exciting opportunity for...

Recruitment Genius: Plumbing & Heating / Bathroom Trade Counter Sales

£22000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established London ba...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £32,000+

£18000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Children shouldn’t even know the word 'diet' — obesity and lack of body confidence are symptoms of the same cause

Natasha Devon
Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Deadmau5, Kanye West and Jay-Z at the Tidal launch event in New York  

Tidal: An overpriced music streaming service that only benefits the super-rich members of a messianic-like cult? Where do I sign up??

Michael Segalov
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat