British scholar defends move to 'reconsider' links with Israeli institutions

Sarah Carr
11 Min Read

CAIRO: In its annual report, issued yesterday, Amnesty International says that the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) remains “dire .

The report says that over 550 military checkpoints, illegally-constructed settlements and the large swathes of land seized in order to construct the 700 km separation wall have deprived Palestinians of “their source of livelihood and restricted access “to their workplaces, education and health facilities.

International community diplomatic pressure on Israel is non-existent or at best, ineffective: 1.5 million Gazans continue to live under the blockade imposed by the Israeli government last June, and serious abuses of Palestinian rights by Israel continue with seeming impunity.

Critics point to President George Bush’s Knesset speech as evidence of this.

Bush praised Israel’s “defiance of the threats to its existence while neglecting the illegal seizure of land, extrajudicial killings and discrimination of which rights groups accuse Israel.

In the face of the international diplomatic community’s intransigence, or indifference, it is perhaps little surprise that Palestinians on the ground are seeking out new tactics to raise awareness of their circumstances.

In 2004 Palestinian academics launched the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) inspired by the boycott of apartheid South Africa.

Boycott or reconsider

Philip Marfleet, a reader in Social Sciences at the University of East London, who is active in the campaign for an academic boycott of Israel spoke to Daily News Egypt about the evolution of the boycott campaign in the UK.

Marfleet was in Cairo last week to attend part of the Spring Festival celebrations, particularly the Ahadaf Sweif lecture.

He is a member of the British University and College Union (UCU), the UK’s largest association of academics working in further and higher education, which was scheduled to vote Wednesday, on a resolution that asks members to consider “the moral and political consequences of links with Israeli institutions.

Marfleet says that the British boycott movement was linked to the PACBI campaign.

“PACBI has campaigned internationally for academics and people in the sphere of culture broadly defined to not participate in institutional events, or maintain institutional links, with Israel.

“PACBI argues that Israeli freedoms – academic freedoms and the freedom to participate in cultural activity – has been bought at the expense of Palestinian’s denial of those same freedoms.

“They also argue also that they have tried every means to create more space for Palestinian cultural activity, but that everything they do is inhibited by the occupation, he said.

At its founding conference in May 2007 the UCU debated a resolution on the appropriateness of links between British universities and colleges and their counterparts in Israel, which was passed two to one.

“There was a storm of protest, Marfleet said.

Defending the campaign

“The newspapers were full of statements by Israelis and prominent Zionist activists declaring that this was a new wave of anti-Semitism which – rather than being associated with the anti-Semites of old on the extreme right – was associated with new anti-Semites among left-wingers and liberals.

Marfleet suggests that the strength of reaction to the proposed boycott is indicative of the central role that educational institutions occupy in Israel.

“Israeli universities are very important to the fabric of Israeli society and to the occupation.

“Carefully researched material reveals the links of Israeli universities to the army. They house strategic research institutes which do a lot of the type of thinking behind military initiatives. Many high-profile Israeli academics are closely identified with the planning and execution of the occupation strategy, Marfleet says.

The resolution was overturned when a legal opinion suggested that an academic boycott of Israel might fall foul of the British Race Relations Act, and may lay the UCU open to charges of misuse of funds, which explains the carefully nuanced language of the resolution voted on Wednesday.

Marfleet says that proponents of the boycott reacted angrily.

“People were absolutely furious that what they saw as a completely legitimate discussion about a military occupation in solidarity with Palestinian academics should be subject to a legal judgement, which appeared to close off independent discussion, he said.

During the May 2007 meeting UCU members also voted to invite a delegation of Palestinian academics who toured British university campuses in order to explain the circumstances in the occupied territories in April 2008.

Marfleet says that their testimonies demonstrated the extent to which “everyday educational life is not possible in the OPT .

“Every single Palestinian university faces problems getting its students into the university. Every single day, the vast majority of students and staff have to try and pass roadblocks where they are routinely detained.

“If they’re able to get to class they run the risk of military invasions, killings and assassinations on campus, closures and arbitrary arrest. Very often the Israeli army enters campuses and whisks students away from classrooms and student residences.

“In addition, because the Palestinian economy is being strangled by the Israelis, these are institutions which live precariously. They don’t have the finances and resources to maintain the basics of higher education.

Reject the boycott

Opponents of the academic boycott of Israel reject it as being both ineffective and harmful.

Reader in law at the University of East London John Strawson suggests on the website (a forum for opponents of the academic boycott of Israel) that “boycotts of universities always undermine academic freedom, which must be seen as undesirable. . Exchanging ideas, debating issues, working on common projects, collaborative publishing ventures are valuable in and of themselves.

Strawson also suggests that academics have little influence in the political arena and that “working with people positively seems far more likely to help create conditions that will end the occupation than the negative boycott. The boycott is a call to do nothing about the occupation at all.

Marfleet rejects this.

“That would be a strong argument if only there was evidence to show that linkages between Palestinian and Israeli academics and students have produced any tangible results, Marfleet explained.

“We’ve had the occupation for 40 years and the predicament of Palestinian institutions is worse than it’s ever been.

“Importantly, the number of Israeli academics who have staked out a position which is publicly critical of what is going on and have mobilized to do anything about it is insignificant.

The Cairo debate

This position is shared by Dr Sharif Almusa, an associate professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.

“Talk about academic freedom doesn’t really hold where there is an occupation and Palestinians simply cannot exercise their academic freedom, Almusa said.

“The equivalent of academic freedom for Palestinians is the ending of the occupation.

On May 14, the American University in Cairo’s Senate (a meeting of tenured staff) passed a resolution (58 for, 42 against) condemning Israel’s “systematic measures that strangle Palestinian academic development and supporting “the growing voices of global civil society organizations and prominent individuals calling for various forms of boycott of Israel.

In 2006 a group of Israeli scholars were invited to AUC as part of a conference, provoking a furious reaction from some students and staff and sparking off a debate on the policy of normalization.

While at the diplomatic level Egypt re-established political and economic links with Israel after the Camp David Accords, the majority of Egyptians remain firmly opposed to normalization.

The AUC’s Board of Trustees, which ratifies Senate resolutions, reject
ed the resolution, stating that, “AUC does not take positions on political issues, and “because academic freedom is a fundamental value of the university, the board voted to neither accept nor approve the Senate s resolution.

Almusa rejects their reasoning.

“We are a university and should be political. As an American university in the middle of Cairo, AUC cannot in any case escape the political.

He also suggests that the Board of Trustees are “disconnected from Egypt and do not represent the AUC community.

The UCU resolution proposes the “grey-listing of the Ariel College of Judea and Samaria, which Marfleet says has been constructed on land seized from three Palestinian villages about 15 miles north of Ramallah.

“It is a bastion of the most conservative settler thought. What we have discovered is that although its ambition is to provide intellectual leadership to the settler movement, it actually draws most of its students from Israel. Over 70 percent of students come from greater Tel Aviv.

Marfleet says that Ariel College is emblematic of the way in which Israeli academic institutions are implicated in the occupation and denial of Palestinian rights.

“This is an institution built illegally, in territory under military rule. The vast bulk of the students and the staff daily come from major Israeli towns on roads prohibited to Palestinians.

“This institution is a startling example of the way in which the process of colonization facilitates the activities of Israeli universities while denying them to Palestinian institutions, and in fact operating a parallel universe.

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Sarah Carr is a British-Egyptian journalist in Cairo. She blogs at
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