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Fearing boycott, Israeli academics warn against accrediting West Bank school

The Israeli higher education committee for the West Bank approved accreditation of Ariel University Center today. One university president warns the move endangers Israel's 'next Nobel prize.'

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The postponement is seen as a politically driven attempt to buy time to gain opposition to accreditation, although that hasn't eliminated the possibility that politicians in the right-leaning governing coalition may intervene on AUC's behalf.

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However, the Committee on Higher Education in Judea and Samaria (the Jewish biblical name for the West Bank, often used by settlers and their supporters), which has the formal authority to establish a university in the West Bank, decided today to accredit Ariel anyway.

'Like blaming the University of California for… Iraq'

The battle over AUC highlights how Ariel, possibly more than any other settlement, has sought to establish itself as a normal Israeli bedroom community, complete with industrial parks, manicured lawns, and a performing arts center.

Perhaps for that reason, the city of Ariel has recently been the target of boycott efforts by Israel's far left. Two years ago, a group of actors from the national theater company Habima stirred up controversy when they refused to perform in Ariel. A group of left-wing Israeli academics refused to work with AUC and called on students and staff to leave.

Paul Frosh, a Hebrew University communications professor who was active in the antiboycott movement, says AUC's accreditation would undercut efforts by Israeli universities to separate themselves from the government's West Bank settlement policy.

For now, pinning blame on the universities is "like blaming the University of California for any American actions in Iraq or Afghanistan," Mr. Frosh says.

But that argument would gain traction if AUC is accredited.

"Once you make the college of Ariel a full-fledged university, you basically say that higher education authority is not autonomous from the Israeli government, and it is directly supporting the occupation," Frosh says.

For now, however, the main damage to Israel from the BDS campaign seems to be a stubborn public relations stain. Almost every major musical artist who visits Israel faces pressure to cancel performances, and many Israeli performance troupes traveling abroad risk running into boycott protests.

Earlier this year, jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson canceled a visit to Israel just days before a scheduled appearance, and novelist Alice Walker refused to have her book "The Color Purple" translated into Hebrew for a new edition.

Israel and its supporters abroad remain vigilant of actions that could boost the BDS movement. A musical performer canceling a Tel Aviv concert is one thing, but the campaign could eventually extend to more critical areas like trade and academia.

"There's always a concern," says a Western diplomat here who has followed boycott efforts. "They're worried it could develop into something in the future."

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