The AUT lecturers’ union passed resolutions in April calling for a boycott of two Israeli universities. One, Bar-Ilan, had a subsidiary college in the illegal Israeli settlement of Ariel, in the occupied West Bank.
The other, Haifa, had harassed Ilan Pappe, the distinguished historian and critic of the Israeli state. The AUT’s act provoked a furious counter-attack not just from Israel, where Haifa university is threatening to sue for defamation, but from Zionist groups around the world.
They have demanded, and obtained, a recall conference of the AUT, to be held on Thursday of next week, to reconsider the boycott. They have set up websites, launched petitions and organised protests from the Israeli embassy and the Jewish Board of Deputies.
The AUT’s critics are unable to defend work with Bar-Ilan and its subsidiary, which is clearly in breach of European regulations about trading with organisations that maintain subsidiaries in the illegal settlements.
Instead they argue that such boycotts are attacks on academic freedom.
They ignore the fact that the union was applauded for its longstanding boycott of apartheid South Africa, and has recently used the threat of boycott against Nottingham University.
The AUT’s sister union Natfhe is currently boycotting London Metropolitan University over another issue. The critics claim that the Israeli boycott is anti-Semitic, even though it is clearly not aimed at Jews but against Israeli institutions. Many Jewish academics support the boycott call.
While the AUT’s critics are loud in their defence of Israeli academic freedom, they are silent about Israel’s systematic abuse of Palestinian human rights.
These include the collective punishments, curfews, house demolitions, targeted assassinations, uprooting of olive trees and orange groves, seizure of Palestinian lands and the 450 kilometre “separation barrier”.
Much of this is a nine metre high wall which bites deep into Palestinian land and has been judged illegal by the International Court of Justice.
Israel is becoming a state uncomfortably close to apartheid South Africa, with its equivalent of pass laws for Palestinians, its Jews-only roads and settlements.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu noted this when he called for support for the boycott.
Palestinian colleagues and their students have their academic freedom — indeed their very right to education — routinely denied by the Israeli occupying forces.
Israeli ID cards restrict Palestinian movement within the West Bank and Gaza.
Students may be prevented from getting to classes, academics prevented from moving between one campus and another.
An assistant professor is told he cannot give a lecture as he is “not a professor” or is “under 45” and therefore not allowed through the checkpoint.
Scientific researchers are blocked from obtaining routine items of equipment without permission from the military and academic journals get “lost” in the post.
British academic support organisations have to go through elaborate procedures to guarantee the safe arrival of textbooks to help the impoverished universities.
Last year the Palestinian teaching unions and non-governmental organisations in the Occupied Territories called for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel and the suspension of funding and subsidies to Israeli universities.
They asked for international support for this call by academic, professional and cultural associations and organisations.
They were careful to exclude from such actions “any conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state’s colonial and racist policies”.
The AUT’s resolutions are a partial response to this call from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).
But, the critics respond, why pick on Israeli academics, many of whom are said to be “on the left” and opposed to Sharon’s policies?
Yet apart from a handful of brave dissidents, most are either silent or actively complicit in the actions of the Israeli state. There is no equivalent anger to that of British academia’s reaction to the illegal Iraq war.
In response to the European moratorium call, launched in 2002, which invited researchers not to collaborate with colleagues at Israeli universities in making research bids, Israeli universities set up a joint committee to resist this.
The Israeli academic community does not see freedom as indivisible — the freedom most noisily defended is only its own. This is why it is important not merely to defend the resolutions the AUT has already passed against counter-attack at the special conference, but to go beyond them to actively support the PACBI call.
This should be by Natfhe as well, the union with which the AUT is shortly to merge. The boycott is a powerful, and non-violent, method of creating international pressure for change.
A boycott helped overthrow apartheid. Today it can play a vital role in the struggle for just peace in Palestine/Israel.
Hilary Rose and Steven Rose are members of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Steven Rose is speaking at Marxism 2005. For more information go to www.marxism2005.net