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Edinburgh academics pledge to boycott Israeli universities

Hundreds of UK academics have signed a public pledge to boycott Israeli universities, in a move hailed by Palestinian rights groups as a strong message and denounced by pro-Israeli organisations as damaging to the peace process.

In a letter last week, 343 academics spanning 72 universities, including eight at the University of Edinburgh, announced their refusal to collaborate with Israeli universities until the government adapted its policies toward Palestinians.

The letter, published as a full page advertisement in The Guardian, accused the Israeli government of  “intolerable human rights violations” toward Palestinians and an “apparent determination to resist any feasible settlement”.

Its signatories pledged to abstain from visiting campuses or attending conferences organised by Israeli academic institutions.  But they exempted individual academics, pledging to “continue to work with our Israeli colleagues in their individual capacities.”

The letter was lauded by Palestinian advocacy organisations, with some saying that it would help Israeli academics critical of their government to feel supported. In the 24 hours following its publication, 100 additional academics added their signatures, including another three from the University of Edinburgh, according to the campaign’s website.

But Jewish and Israeli organisations have sharply condemned it, with the Israeli embassy in London charging the boycott with “blatantly ignoring the lives of Israelis, and the conditions necessary for peace.”

“Boycott movements only aim to sow hatred and alienation between the sides, rather than promoting coexistence”, the embassy said in a statement.

“The only path to advancing peace between Israelis and Palestinians passes through the negotiation room.”

In an interview with The Student, Professor Jonathan Rosenhead of the London School of Economics, an architect of the movement and spokesperson for the public letter, said that the boycott was intended to send a tough message to Israeli society to inspire compliance.

“We aim to change [the conversation], by saying to the Israeli public at large: if they continue with their policies, there are consequences,” he told The Student (click here to read the full interview).

“And Israel in the end will feel some of the disadvantages which Palestinians already have.”

The academic pledge is the latest salvo in the broader Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.  Modelled after the movement pressuring the South African government during apartheid, BDS has seen economic and cultural boycotts on Israeli society in recent years, ranging from soft drink companies to concert tour locations.

The movement has attracted the attention and condemnation of top officials in the Israeli government.  Speaking to a conference of university leaders in June, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called the threat of an academic boycott a major threat to Israel’s interests.

“The atmosphere around the world is changing, and creating a situation in which it is impossible to deal with the issue as anything but a first-rate strategic threat,” he told the academics at the time.

To Rosenhead, the response was validation.

“This is part of the general campaign against the whole of Israel,” he told The Student.  “They know it’s a serious situation,”

He continued: “It’s quite clear that the impact is not in changing government policies in Israel, but in threatening Israel’s continuation of business as usual.”

Rachel Diamond, student coordinator of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC), a UK organisation supporting BDS, echoed Rosenhead’s sentiment.  Speaking to The Student, she characterised the academic boycott as a small piece in a larger equation.

“The whole point is that the Israeli government is not budging—it’s not doing the things it should be doing, it’s not abiding by international law”, she told The Student.

“Every day it’s violating people’s human rights, and the only way it’s going to work is international pressure alongside Palestinian pressure.  And so the academic boycott is part of that pressure.”

But the forceful approach of the boycott has been strongly criticised by organisations such as the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), an umbrella organisation representing Jewish students in the UK and Ireland, which accused the letter of “simplify[ing] a complex conflict” and harming innocent people in the process. 

“UJS wholeheartedly condemns academic boycotts,” the organisation said in a statement after the letter’s publication.

“This [movement] does nothing to support the peace process and hurts rather than helps many of the Palestinian people whom these academics claim to be acting for.”

Speaking to The Student, UJS Campaigns Director Russell Langer said the movement would stifle cooperation between the two sides and stymie hopes for progress.

“British academics should be working with their colleagues in both Palestinian and Israeli institutions to help encourage and foster links between the two sides,” he told The Student.  “Peace will not be achieved by placing all blame on one side and refusing to even interact with Israeli institutions. 

“The reality is that Israelis and Palestinians interact through academia on a daily basis and forge personal connections that trump the conflict.”

Rosenhead is undeterred.  Asked by The Student about criticism that the action against universities was disproportionate, he dismissed the notion.

“There is no safe, clean area in Israel”, he told The Student.  “All of Israel’s universities are implicated in things to do with the occupying.

“You have [researchers] who designed the armoured bulldozers, remote controlled, that demolish Palestinian homes.  You have have the university technology scientists who develop special apparatuses for detecting Palestinian tunnels which would otherwise be used to break the siege—you can go on and on.”

Diamond, of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, agreed, telling The Student: “Israeli universities are tied to the occupation, and actually they’re complicit and they’re part of the problem.  So actually all of these institutions need to be targeted.”

The boycott pledge has divided academics at the University of Edinburgh.

One signatory to the pledge, Dr Anthony Gorman, senior lecturer in Modern Middle Eastern History, told The Student: “I’ve been going [to Israel] almost 30 years—I feel that it is an obligation to try and effect some change.

“The people I meet in Israel, many of them are critical of the government’s policies but feel impotent in a the way of a sort of general shift to the right.  And I see [the pledge] as giving them giving them some support, first and foremost.

“Nothing much has happened for twenty years,” he continued.  “I see this as one way of maybe changing the dynamic.”

Another signatory, Dr Tahl Kaminer, lecturer in Architectural Design and Theory, cited specific moves by the Israeli government as factors in his decision. 

He characterised recent Israeli legislation colloquially referred to as the ‘anti-boycott law’ as “the type of unacceptable decision to which the only sensible response is dissensus.”

But others disagreed.

“I don’t support the boycott”, Dr Stephen Bowd, reader in European History, told The Student.  

“It’s a nice idea: I understand the sentiment behind it, but I don’t think it’s an effective way to change Israeli policy.

Dr Hannah Holtschneider, senior lecturer in Jewish Studies, took aim at what she described as a threat to academic freedom.

“I do not understand how lack of contact and co-operation with Israeli institutions and publishing in Israeli academic journals can help forge a lasting peaceful solution to the conflict”, she told The Student.  “How can shutting down exchange of ideas be helpful in the search for a resolution?”

Bowd and Holtschneider also took issue with the letter’s attempt to distinguish between academics and the institutions they serve.

“There will be individual academics who are potentially receiving government funds and research grants,” Bowd said.  “Is there supposed to be a vetting process that goes on for each academic?  For example, how would they determine how far the academic is free or distant from Israeli government policy?”

Holtschneider agreed.

“While the boycott pledge suggests that the target is institutions rather than individuals, academics are not simply acting as individuals, but are also seen as representatives of their universities, not least because universities fund their academic staff to carry out research,” she told The Student.

“A boycott is effectively shutting down the voices of Israeli academics in scholarly debate, without creating the possibility for a political solution to the conflict.”

But despite criticism, the signatures continue to mount.  On Tuesday, the boycott’s website announced the number of signatories to reach “over 600”, with 270 signing on since its initial publication.

Speaking to The Student on the future of the movement, Rosenhead said “I think we have to look and see how strong our support is.

“What we can do will depend on how many we have.”

Image: Flickr: Zeevveez

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