Stolen antiquities, Israel and others

Market has acted to keep stolen antiquities out of Britain

Sir: You report Dr Paul Craddock of the British Museum as having said that most antiquities on sale in Britain are either stolen or fakes ("Art Market Scandal", 24 May). My understanding is that Dr Craddock was confining himself to Greek and Roman gold jewellery. I cannot speak for the market in forgeries, but as Chairman of the Illicit Trade Advisory Panel I can lend some perspective.

The panel examined this matter in 2000. It concluded that certain practices within the UK market had been discreditable and required reform. But it discovered no support for claims that the illicit element dominated the trade as a whole. If the position has changed since 2000, it might be expected to have done so in the light of events in Iraq. But you also cite Dr John Curtis, also of the British Museum, as saying he does not believe that large numbers of antiquities from sites in Iraq have been passing through London.

The need to defend the lawful market against infection by unlawfully removed material was seen by the panel (whose members include representatives of the art and antiquities market) as a strong factor in favour of reform. That reform occurred through the UK's accession in 2002 to the Unesco Convention of 1970 and the enactment of the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, mentioned in your report. These changes would not have been achieved without the support of the market.

The Illicit Trade Advisory Panel takes a keen interest in any account of the entry of unlawfully removed cultural objects into the UK. I shall be writing to Dr Craddock to invite him to submit evidence for the statement quoted in your report.

PROFESSOR NORMAN PALMER

CHAIRMAN, ILLICIT TRADE ADVISORY PANEL LONDON WC1

Sir: Another thing that makes buying works of art so risky at the moment is the dramatic recent rise of the "optimistic upgrade" wherein former copies and "school of" works are hyped as the pukka object. Warning signs of these treacherous waters do exist for the wary: such works often emerge brightly from restorers' studios and advance in convoys sailing under the flag of a named big artist's "hitherto overlooked early period".

MICHAEL DALEY

DIRECTOR, ARTWATCH UK EAST BARNET, HERTFORDSHIRE

Israel, peace and the academic boycott

Sir: Israeli academics are among the most pro-peace groups in Israel. The Israeli among us are trying our best to change the aggressive dynamics that prevail in this region. We believe our position helped to generate the current lull in the fighting between Israeli and Palestinians and to move Israeli public opinion towards realisation that Israel must leave the occupied territories.

We believe that the maximal impact a person can have is on one's own people and that it is there where we can make a real change. We wish to see more of this understanding from some supporters of the Palestinian cause in the Association of University Teachers who voted on 22 April to boycott two Israeli universities and relegated to the executive the possible decision to boycott a third one.

Beyond the weakness of the specific accusations against Haifa, Bar-Ilan and Hebrew Universities, we believe the boycott is wrong in principle. Aggression typically elicits more aggression, followed by more frustration and then greater aggression. Breaking this vicious cycle requires an act of wisdom driven by a constructive and optimistic approach. The AUT boycott is neither wise nor constructive.

A constructive move on the part of the AUT would be to initiate open dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian academics. As an example, this coming June, an international conference on the basal ganglia (a brain region involved with Parkinson's disease) has been organised jointly by the Hebrew University and Al-Quds Palestinian University Medical School and sessions will take place on both sites.

We feel that by seeking collaborations to further common, constructive and worthy goals such as scientific and scholarly research and excellence in teaching, we can build bridges between nations that encourage peace and understanding. Stopping these collaborations will not help anyone. Supporting them will.

PROF ISRAEL NELKEN, PROF IDAN SEGEV, PROF HAGAI BERGMAN

JERUSALEM DR GAL RICHTER-LEVIN HAIFA, ISRAEL PROF ANDREW KING, DR JAN SCHNUPP, DR BASHIR AHMED, DR JENNIFER BIZLEY, DR A LOUISE UPTON, J P BOLAM, PROF BERNARD SILVERMAN FRS OXFORD PROF PETER DAYAN, PROF ANTHONY DAYAN, PROF SAMUEL EILON, DR ZOUBIN GHAHRAMANI, DR PETER LATHAM LONDON

Sir: At its meeting on 26 May the AUT should extend its boycott to include all Israeli universities. These universities persistently marginalise the debate about Zionist crimes, by denying sufficient resources and opportunities for it to enter the public discourse in Israel. A proper academic platform would enable debating the monopoly that the Shoah (Hebrew, "catastrophe") has had on memory in Israel, thus leaving no room for the Palestinian catastrophe, the displacement of 750,000 people by Zionism's creation of the state.

The conflict in the Middle East will never be resolved until Israeli society internalises the tremendous wrong Zionism has inflicted on the Palestinian people. It is primarily in Israeli universities that the necessary debate about Zionism must be given a proper platform.

Only a well-informed and firm external boycott will change the pathological academic complicity in keeping the Zionist question in the cupboard. The Israeli Zionist left, the "peace activists", smother the real debate about the origin of the problem by limiting it to the 1967 occupation. Instead, the point of debate ought to be the process which culminated in 1947-49 when Zionism displaced the indigenous population to establish a state based on a dominant religion and ethnicity.

Speaking as an ex-Israeli, to each AUT member I would say that this boycott does not seek to punish Israeli academics for the crimes of Zionism, but to awaken our fellow academics in Israel. It is a boycott about academic freedom, about the academic duty to provide a platform for questioning conventional truths rather than submission to them.

DR OREN BEN-DOR

SCHOOL OF LAW UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHAMPTON

Living in a world of ruthless competition

Sir: It was sad to read of Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Monday Interview, 23 May) trolling out the same nonsense as that purveyed by the so-called centre left in Britain - actually extreme right wing: "No one has dared to tell [the French left] that we live in a world of market forces."

Now, I, as a member of the Respect Coalition, am of the left - the real left - and thousands of people have told me that I live in a world of market forces. I can't move for evidence of market forces. My niggardly basic pension tells me I live (though that last word is something of an exaggeration) in such a world. The crippling council tax tells me. The debt my daughter must face if she decides to go to university tells me. The incidence of MRSA in hospitals tells me. Above all, the aggression with which ordinary, decent people are forced to behave in order to survive in this forcing-house of cut-throat competition drills into me the fact that I live in this beastly world.

Therefore I want to change it.

ROGER TOWLE

LONDON SW6

Blair's assault on our freedom of speech

Sir: The Blair government is now to pass legislation that makes it an offence to "condone acts of terrorism". Given that the definition of "terrorism" is so nebulous, we must not let this direct assault on our freedom of speech become law.

In dealing with any conflict, it is surely to our benefit to try and understand the causes of violence and the mindset of the perpetrator. I have had conversations that have reached the conclusion that suicide bombers must be in a pretty desperate state of mind. Are we therefore guilty of condoning terrorism?

Politicians will reassure us that these laws are only to be used against hook-handed preachers of jihad in north London mosques. The MoD has just attempted to slap an Asbo on legitimate protest against a foreign military presence on our land (Menwith Hill). The protester wasn't branded a terrorist, but she was still tagged and subjected to curfew. Is this now acceptable in Britain?

ROBERT TARBUCK

LONDON N19

Picking on 4x4s as an easy target

Sir: Alban Thurston (letter, 20 May) accuses 4x4 owners of vanity and self-delusion. Spied on my walk home from the station on Friday evening: a 3.5 litre Alfa flashily picking up a passenger; a parked Aston, engine size unlabelled but huge; a moored canal boat running its big noxious diesel solely to charge batteries.

I looked for Mr Thurston, in vain. Possibly too busy with slogans and easy targets rather than real environment issues? Would he provide a list of his interests and possessions, so I may select my "legitimate" targets?

DAVID GRUNDY

BERKHAMSTED, HERTFORDSHIRE

The corrupt system we call democracy

Sir: I wholeheartedly support The Independent's Campaign for Democracy. The present system can hardly be called democratic. This injustice raises its head at every election and the elected government always manages to put it back in the cupboard, so I am very grateful to The Independent for keeping the subject alive.

I had a letter from my MP before the last election telling me that if I voted Liberal Democrat I would allow the Tories in. If that is not an acknowledgement that the system is corrupt, then I do not know what is!

FRANCES SMITH

BARWICK IN ELMET, WEST YORKSHIRE

Sir: I welcome your decision to open a debate about the future of democracy. However, I feel that proportional representation is the wrong policy targeted at the wrong level of government.

It is imperative that the holders of power understand that the electorate can remove them if they perform poorly. The current electoral system more than meets this criterion. Governments elected by proportional representation tend to be either unstable (Italy) or unable to drive through essential change (Germany) or allow disproportionate influence to extremist parties (Israel).

However, local democracy does not meet the criterion I set out above. Traditional party support is so strong that local councils in safe areas know that they will never be voted out. Equally, the electorate find it impossible to vote on the performance of local politicians when they stand in the name of national parties. This situation is responsible for anomalies such as the Newcastle council being forced out of office for the first time in 40 years because of a war in Iraq over which they had no control.

At the last London Mayoral elections I was struck by the fact that Ken Livingstone was Ken Livingstone first and a Labour politician second. I voted on the personality and policies of the candidate. This restored the link between their performance and my vote. The most important change needed is the abolition of the existing structures of local government and their replacement with regional bodies headed by a mayor who wields sufficient power to be of interest to voters.

JAMES HUDSTON

LONDON SE26

Sir: A Sellar of Edinburgh (letter, 24 May) objects to being asked to rank candidates in order of preference. He would not be obliged to do so under STV, or any other system of PR that I am aware of. It is perfectly acceptable to vote for one candidate only: I have done so in more than one (non-parliamentary) election.

JOHN HORNE

WINDERMERE, CUMBRIA

Striking benefits

Sir: An unexpected benefit of the BBC strike on Monday was the hugely improved presentation of the Ten O'Clock News. Shorn of all its superfluous captions, CGI graphics, "briefings", fake bonhomie between newsreader and reporters and exhortations to "press the red button", it became clear, comprehensible, informative, interesting and easy to watch, without any apparent loss of professionalism. Maybe the BBC will now realise the virtue of simplicity in capturing people's attention for news?

DON KELLER

LONDON N15

Sir: Terence Blacker (Editorial & Opinion, 24 May) rejoices in the absence of what passes for news on radio and TV during the 24-hour strike by BBC employees. He could, of course, enjoy days without "a great fog of mostly useless information" by turning off his radio or television.

MICHAEL ALCOTT

ST IVES, CAMBRIDGESHIRE

Divine right of cyclists

Sir: Fuming after being practically knocked off my feet by an aggressive cyclist who had ignored a red light, I then read the letter from Nikki Vandenbergh regarding cyclists in the Netherlands (24 May). God (or the Government) forbid that cyclists should have right of way over both pedestrians and cars. Here in Bristol, PC capital of Britain, aggressive cyclists are a nightmare. They seem to assume they have a divine right to ride down pavements, ignore traffic lights etc.

ED REICH

BRISTOL

Water pressure

Sir: Thinking of the terrorists' threat to poison water supplies and possible summer drought, I installed a 50-gallon (227-litre) water butt to collect rain water from the roof of a small terraced house in London. The butt was full after two good overnight storms.

If such butts were in general use, we would use less mains water, ease the pressure on the sewage system in times of excessive rainfall, have an emergency supply and, in times of drought or water shortage, a small reservoir of natural rainwater for garden plants and trees.

JAMES PAGE-ROBERTS

LONDON W6

Hidden dangers

Sir: Your leader on the wearing of hoods (21 May) mistakes the issue as one of mere "teenage rites of passage". It may well be that, but hoods are also used to conceal identity. They are an even more effective disguise than masks, and yobbos know it. Would we really tolerate groups of masked men shuffling round our streets and shops?

RAY RACY

BRISTOL

Sir: When does a hoodie become an anorak?

SIMON BILL

LONDON NW10

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