British boycott riles Israeli academics

A British academics' union has called for a boycott of two Israeli universities, prompting a major outcry.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Hebrew University sociologist Baruch Kimmerling coined the term "politicide" to describe Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's approach toward the Palestinians.

In a 2002 article that was expanded into a book, Mr. Kimmerling wrote that Mr. Sharon was undertaking "a gradual but systematic attempt to cause their annihilation as an independent political and social entity." Since then, his criticisms of what he terms Israel's "colonial project" in the West Bank have been no less devastating.

But Kimmerling and other Israeli academics who unabashedly oppose the occupation now find themselves, along with colleagues of different political hues, on the defensive against an unprecedented boycott approved last month by the governing body of Britain's 40,000-strong Association of University teachers (AUT).

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The boycott specifically targets Haifa and Bar Ilan universities, but it is being taken as a sanction against Israeli academia as a whole - and being opposed virtually across the political spectrum here.

One of its lone Israeli supporters, Haifa University political scientist Ilan Pappe, who cooperated with AUT members in advancing it, sees the boycott as a key step toward pressuring Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, much as international sanctions were used against apartheid South Africa.

Independent analysts differ over whether the British move is likely to reverberate into further boycotts emanating from Europe.

Even withing the AUT, there are misgivings, with opponents hoping to overturn the boycott decision during a special meeting of the organization's national council, scheduled for May 26. AUT has yet to spell out precisely what the boycott entails.

"It is very significant," Mr. Pappe says. "Boycotting should bring the same results as in South Africa: a fundamental change in basic policies."

Pointing to a decision by the Presbyterian Church in the United States last year to seek "phased selective divestment" from Israel, Pappe adds: "There's a chance such civil society activity would accumulate and become significant. It's the only thing that can save Palestine and Israel from catastrophe."

But Kimmerling says targeting academia is a mistake. It "will just weaken the last public sphere of free thinking and free speech in Israel - precisely what the Israeli rulers want," he says. Oren Yiftachel, a geographer at Ben-Gurion University known for his sharp criticisms of Israeli policies toward Palestinians, adds: "One doesn't dish out collective punishment on that scale against whole institutions, especially when most Israeli faculty members are against the occupation, at least passively. In South Africa, the university system, almost in its entirety, was a part of apartheid, with racist rules. Israeli universities don't operate that way."

Mr. Yiftachel says the boycott could affect joint projects he and others pursue with Palestinian scholars, thereby undermining research efforts that make a contribution towards peace. "The Palestinians will say, 'If the British boy- cott you, then I will boycott you.' "

Alexander Yacobson, a Haaretz columnist, wrote last week that coalition forces in Iraq kill civilians "much more easily" than Israeli troops in the occupied territories, but that Israeli universities were nevertheless singled out for sanction. "There is no escaping the conclusion that beyond any legitimate political criticism, the emotional stance of Europe towards Israel is influenced - and not only on the margins - by the deep and ancient European obsession and pathology regarding the Jewish nation," he wrote.

The Israeli cabinet last week granted university status to the College of Judea and Samaria at the Ariel settlement in the West Bank, a move some Israeli academics say could boost the boycott call.

Bar Ilan's academic links to the college were cited by AUT as support for the occupation. Bar Ilan President Moshe Kaveh termed the boycott "academic terrorism against Israel."

In the case of Haifa University, AUT said the boycott was because Pappe had faced possible dismissal and continues to face difficulties because of his efforts to defend graduate student Teddy Katz.

Mr. Katz wrote a master's thesis saying a brigade of Israeli forces had committed a massacre of Palestinians in 1948 at Tantura, near Haifa. Haifa University responded in a statement that "contrary to Dr. Pappe's claim, the university made no attempt to expel him." It added that a university committee had concluded that quotes in Katz's written text did not match taped interviews he had conducted and that the text was "grossly distorted." They therefore disqualified his MA thesis.

"There is strong potential for copycat activity," says Greg Austin, a research director at London's Foreign Policy Center, referring to the boycott. "There is deep opposition to Israeli policies in the West Bank in [European] elite opinion and this is reflected to some degree in public opinion."

But Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev disagrees. "This has simply exposed these people as one-sided, extremist, and anachronistic," he says.

"When you have a precedent, some people will think 'let's follow suit,' but I don't see wide support for boycotts," says Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow at London's Chatham House.

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