A British boycott of two Israeli universities for their practices in the occupied territories is seen as harming academic freedom. Emad Gad reviews the latest controversy
On 23 April British academics recommended boycotting two Israeli universities for their involvement in illegal activities in the occupied territories. Britain's Union of University Lecturers resolved to freeze all links with the universities of Haifa and Bar Ilan. The union's conference in Eastbourne accused Haifa University of mistreating Ilan Pappe, a professor of political science, for supporting a student conducting research into controversial issues in Israeli history for a masters thesis that discussed "a massacre in the village of Al-Tantura near Haifa in which 200 Palestinians died."
The conference members were informed that the professor had been persecuted and threatened for taking a stand on the issue. Bar Ilan University was then accused of working with a college located in the Ariel settlement near Nablus in the West Bank. Sue Blackwell, a lecturer from Birmingham University, confirmed that "most Israeli academics serve in the Israeli army's reserve units, and the majority of them support Israel's oppression of the Palestinians, or at any rate they don't oppose it." Union members then proposed opening a dialogue with Palestinian academics, and opposed any communications with a group known as the Israeli Higher Education Institutions Union.
Union representatives demanded an end to cooperation with -- and the withdrawal of their support for British investment in -- the two universities. They described Israel's policy in the occupied territories as "colonialist and racist".
The decision on whether to boycott the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for building student accommodation on land seized from Palestinians was referred to the union's executive council for further consideration.
The decision taken by the Eastbourne conference drew an angry response from supporters of Israel in Britain and from Israel itself. Ronny Fraser, the head of the Academic Friends of Israel said, "if the people who support this boycott have achieved anything, it is to seriously damage peace and cooperation in the Middle East and to marginalise the Union of University Lecturers in academic society." The Israeli Embassy in London described the boycott as foolish and biased.
"In essence, the boycott is an attack on academic freedoms and genuine scholarly study," the president of Haifa University, Professor Ben Zeev said. "I call on all lecturers both in Britain and throughout the world to first try and understand the truth of the matter, and not to destroy academic freedoms for political gain or in the service of extremist opinions. These freedoms are too important to be bandied about as part of a political game."
The resolution for a British boycott includes: Halting all research cooperation between Israeli and British universities; halting exchange visits for lecturers between British universities and Haifa and Bar Ilan universities; British universities may bar graduates from these two universities from receiving British funding to carry out scholarly research, and prevent them from completing their studies in British universities.
The affair began when an Israeli university student named Theodore Katz began research for an MA thesis at Haifa University, in which he stated that an auxiliary unit massacred Arabs in Al-Tantura village during the 1948 war. Soldiers from this unit brought a case against Katz, who confessed before the court that he had invented some of the information presented in his thesis. In light of his admission, the university convened an academic committee which decided to investigate the matter.
Katz subsequently retracted his admission, and Ilan Pappe (one of Katz's teachers) intervened against the investigatory committee claiming its conclusions were dishonest. Pappe claimed that the university's administration had taken disciplinary measures against him because of his position. The university vehemently denied this. Pappe then wrote to his colleagues abroad, informing them of his claims and published an article in The Guardian newspaper in which he called for a boycott against Haifa University. In the wake of the article's publication, the Union of British Lecturers resolved to impose a boycott on Haifa University because of the Katz case and to boycott Bar Ilan University for opening branches in Israeli settlements.
The boycott was hugely controversial in Israel and several writers launched scathing attacks on British universities, accusing them of being biased towards Palestinians and harming academic freedom. One of the most prominent of these articles was a piece written by Sever Plotzker, entitled "British blindness" that appeared in Yediot Aharonot on 26 April in which he examined the root causes of the decision taken by the Union of British Lecturers. He traced these causes back to the events of spring 2002. Following an attack on the Park Hotel in Netanya on the night of the Jewish holiday, Passover, the Israeli army launched operation Days of Penitence, entering Palestinian towns that functioned as strongholds of terrorism, such as Nablus and Jenin. The fighting in Jenin was especially savage: blood was spilt and there were many victims. During the operation, the Palestinian media presented the battle in Jenin as "the slaughter of hundreds of defenceless innocents", even calling it "the greatest war crime since Auschwitz".
Most international media outlets showed an inclination to believe the claims of Palestinian spokespeople, and none more so than the British press. The British media adopted the Palestinian account of events in Jenin as the truth, even adding their own lies to the original deception. "The slaughterhouse of Jenin" appeared as the headline on a number of left-liberal British dailies, while other papers filled their coverage with terrifying yet wholly imaginary accounts of murder and mass destruction they claimed had been committed by the Israeli army against a defenceless and isolated community. Not one of those British opinion writers and analysts who repeated phrases like the "Warsaw ghetto" and "the Palestinian crisis" to describe Jenin, saw fit to include the tiniest snippet of reality. At the time, literary supplements in London newspapers were publishing anti-Semitic doggerel masquerading as anti-Israeli poems. Intellectuals began talking seriously about the possibility of bringing an end to Israel, the "racist" Jewish state. Indeed, it was proposed that the Israeli state was a historical error that needed correcting.
A mood of rampant and unabated hostility to Israel took hold of the British public. The mayor of London even took it upon himself to describe the Israeli prime minister as "a war criminal". It was in this atmosphere that the Union of British Lectures blindly resolved to boycott Israeli universities, carried along by the anti-Israeli hysteria led by Sue Blackwell, a former devout Christian turned equally devout revolutionary socialist. The dishonest "reasons" for this resolution are not important here and nor the impact of such a decision (absolutely zero). What is important, however, is that we cannot live in a fantasy land; not us, or our friends in England. The boycott resolution sends a crystal clear message to every intelligent British citizen who has read and absorbed the stories about Jenin. What is going on here is a methodical step-by-step attempt to strip away Israel's right to exist, not because of what it is, but because of what it represents: a state for the Jewish people; a state -- in the eyes of some British lecturers -- that has no legitimacy.
For more details on this case, visit the Arabs Against Discrimination website at www.aad-online.org.