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Movement for Academic Boycott of Israel Alive, Well—and Growing

For those in Britain and around the world following the various attempts to pressurize Israel through boycotts and sanctions, recent months have offered signs that an academic boycott, though currently on the backburner, remains a “live” issue—and may well score more successes in the near future.

A quick recap takes us back to April 2005, when the UK’s Association of University Teachers (AUT) voted in favor of a boycott of two specific Israeli universities, in a decision that provoked a storm of debate, and eventually led to the motion being overturned the following month. Despite this apparent defeat, the pro-boycott union members had succeeded in thrusting the issue into the public arena, and for many it felt like the genie now was well and truly out of the bottle.

In the aftermath of the AUT vote, anti-boycott groups like the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom and Engage were formed to counteract the new momentum. The latter, typical of the anti-boycott movement, sought to claim that “the choice to boycott Israeli Jews rather than anyone else in the world is effectively anti-Semitic…even if those arguing for a boycott do not feel that they are antisemities [sic], do not feel a hatred of Jews, or do not intend to be anti-Semitic.”

Fast forward to early summer 2006, and it was the turn of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe) to make the headlines, as their national conference passed a motion urging its members to consider a boycott of Israeli academic institutions that do not “publicly dissociate themselves” from “apartheid policies.” The impact of such a development was diminished, however, when, after a matter of days, Natfhe merged with the AUT to form the new University and College Union (UCU), a move that reduced former policies to non-binding status.

Once again, the issue disappeared from sight—until mid-September, when an open letter was published in the Irish Times. The missive was signed by 61 academics, who united in calling for “a moratorium” on “support for Israeli academic institutions, at both national and European levels”—in practice, requiring sympathetic colleagues to refrain “where possible, from further joint collaborations with Israeli academic institutions.” Such a step was deemed necessary in light of Israel’s “violent repression” of the Palestinians and “aggression” against Lebanon, and the academics specifically referred to previous Palestinian urgings “to take practical action to pressure Israel to comply with international law and basic human rights norms.” The letter stated that such a policy would “continue until Israel abides by U.N. resolutions and ends the occupation of Palestinian territories.” The story did not make too many ripples, coverage being largely restricted to the UK Jewish press, Israeli papers like The Jerusalem Post, and activist Web sites, but it emerged as part of a broader picture that had Israel worried.

The pro-boycott genie now was well and truly out of the bottle.

There obviously was enough of a threat to prompt Israeli Education Minister Yuli Tamir to discuss the specific issue of an academic boycott with her British counterpart, Alan Johnson, in London early in October, the first time such a high-profile political meeting was convened to deal with the boycott. Tamir described the boycott as “tremendously dangerous,” and, unsurprisingly, insinuated that pro-boycott apologetics deployed anti-Semitic arguments: “Some of the language used to justify the boycott seems to be over and above what is reasonable political criticism,”she said. Tamir also revealed that she would be asking Johnson to pressure British university vice-chancellors to snuff out support for a boycott. Clearly, the boycott proposal had done enough to rattle the Israel’s political establishment and its advocates.

And what of the union that hit the headlines last year, now merged as the UCU? Although its first national conference is not until June 2007, there already are indications that pro-Palestinian solidarity could be a feature. At an October branch meeting of the Goldsmiths University and College Union, a motion seeking to rule out any future possibility of a pro-boycott vote was defeated by a substantial majority. These developments, reported on the anti-Zionist blog Jews Sans Frontières, also included the election of a delegation “likely to support a boycott at congress.”

The “Anti-Semite” Smear

Highly relevant to the potency of the academic arena as a means of pro-Palestinian solidarity is the effectiveness or otherwise of the “anti-Semite” smear used by Zionist opponents of such measures. In early September, the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Anti-Semitism, headed up by MP Denis MacShane, published its findings into anti-Semitism in contemporary Britain. While also documenting incidences such as vandalism and the desecration of graves, the report decided to pass judgment on the question of boycotts. One of the report’s concluding recommendations stated that “calls to boycott contact with academics working in Israel are an assault on academic freedom…[and] are anti-Jewish in practice. We would urge the new union’s executive and leadership to oppose the boycott.”

Although such a prominent deliberate muddying of the waters does not bode well, there were more promising signs that the anti-Semitic slander tactics were beginning to wear thin. British newspapers reported in October on what the Guardian called “the limits of freedom of speech in America,” after British-born academic Tony Judt and British-based author Carmen Callil both became victims of the Zionist lobby’s intolerance for criticism of Israel (see story on p. 22of this issue). Callil’s book launch in New York was cancelled due to pressure regarding a solitary paragraph condemning Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, while Judt saw two of his speaking events cancelled in light of his critique of Zionism.

In both cases, the crassness of the attack on both critics seems to have backfired: while the events in question may have been cancelled, the techniques of Israel’s apologists were laid bare for all to see. It remains to be seen whether, come June, cries of anti-Semitism will drown out those seeking to hold Israel to account at the UCU conference, or whether the international Palestinian solidarity movement will gain yet more important ground.

Published in Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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