Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 June 2005
Issue No. 746
Region
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A swirl in a cup?

Was the AUT really ready for an academic boycott of two Israeli universities? From Exeter, Shahira Samy explains why the decision was revoked

In June of last year, the University of Exeter in the UK hosted an international workshop themed on the return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland. Debating the issue were international and Palestinian scholars, civil society campaigners for the right of return, representatives of the Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit as well as an Israeli academic from Bar Ilan University.

Had the event taken place this June, and the Association of University Teachers' (AUT) motion to boycott Haifa and Bar Ilan Israeli universities not been revoked, would the British university, which runs two major research projects on Jerusalem and refugees, still have invited the same Bar Ilan senior lecturer to explore the best options for the repatriation of over four million Palestinian refugees?

For over a month since the AUT decision passed on 22 April, the press has been a battleground between proponents and opponents of the boycott motion, which targeted Haifa University for allegedly pressuring staff who are critical of the Israeli government, and Bar Ilan University for its ties with a college located in an illegal settlement in the West Bank.

The crescendo peaked with the approach of an emergency meeting on 26 May to reconsider the vote after many members complained the original debate had been cut short and had excluded Jewish delegates by being held on the eve of Passover.

Voices from the "No" camp claimed that there was a 'whiff of anti-Semitism in the air' and that the union's existence was being threatened by a small group of 'left-wing extremists'. The union was implored by the "Yes" people to hold its nerve in the face of 'unbelievable pressure' from those opposed to the original decision.

The impassioned arguments maintained a momentum for longer than anyone expected, including the motion's promoters, though it quickly became apparent that there were many interpretations of the polarising debate.

Opinion pieces, letters and columns running in newspapers on an almost daily basis left readers wondering what exactly was at stake: was it a political stance on Palestinian-Israeli politics? A domestic view of trade union policies? Or was it a global value-laden debate over academic freedom?

Many of the sympathetic opinions saw the boycott as a suitable means to express opposition to Israeli occupation and support to Palestinian academics who not only lacked academic freedom in their view but freedom of movement as well.

Others thought the boycott was a good idea, but was aimed at the wrong target, academics being the desired channel for dialogue and global joint projects of research. The idea that a boycott would push Israeli academics to stand against their government's policies also appealed to a segment of those who were in favour of the motion.

A letter signed by Shimon Peres and 21 Nobel prize laureates on the other hand strengthened the voice of those refusing any curtailment of academic independence and freedom of speech. The notion put forward in the letter that 'mixing academia with political activity will harm the advancement of knowledge and science' was met with a counter petition published on the same day signed by hundreds of South African academics who were themselves boycotted by British academics during the apartheid era some 20 years ago.

Enter the anti-Semitic incriminations and the denunciation of those seeking to demonise the Jewish state. Bar Ilan University set up an advisory board for academic freedom which took out an advert in The Guardian comparing the boycott to the persecution of academics in Germany in the preceding years of World War II.

And why single out Israeli occupation and violation of human rights -- the opposing arguments wen -- when Britain itself is occupying Iraq? Isn't it ill-timed, as official Israeli- Palestinian relations are improving? Isn't it all an issue beyond the scope of the union's duties?

Moreover, the proposition put forward by the initiative included a Palestinian call to exclude 'conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state's colonial and racist policies' which was seen as problematic to a large number of British academics who wondered about the selection process and the criteria it will follow.

Meanwhile, the perplexity of the followers of the deliberations deepened when a joint statement calling for academic cooperation between the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Al-Quds University was announced in London. But that is not quite the whole picture preceding the revoke of the AUT motion for the academic boycott.

Instead of quietly going about its business as a trade union and embarking on merger negotiations with a fellow higher education sister, the AUT found itself fending off waves of international condemnation, European Union denunciation of the boycott -- which could translate into an absence of research funds -- the British government declaration that it is 'not in favour of academic boycott' and defamation cases from the Israeli universities in question.

The matter was further complicated with diverse opinions regarding the legal status of the boycott itself and its violation of employment law, human rights law and anti-discrimination legislation.

As a result, a large portion of the AUT members were clearly not ready to face all those repercussions for the sake of pushing forward the academic boycott against Israeli universities.

Now that the guns have fallen silent, the fact remains that the whole issue has been heavily politicised despite a large segment of the debate relating to questions of union policies and values of academic freedom. However, presenting the academic boycott as a political issue opposing Israeli policies in the occupied Palestinian territories is precisely what its promoters initially intended.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel launched its call to the AUT on the premise that no Israeli academic institution has issued a public statement condemning Palestinian violations of human rights nor broken ties with the military in protest of the occupation.

Should that thus mean that the initiators of the boycott motion have failed since the vote has been revoked? Or should they consider succeeding in placing the realities of Israeli occupation on the forefront of public debate for over a month a gain in itself?

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