The University and College Union’s (UCU) proposed academic boycott of Israel has attracted opposition from many people who might usually be numbered among Israel’s harshest critics. The (Palestinian) President of Jerusalem’s Al Quds University is among those opposing the boycott, in a joint statement with the (Israeli) President of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
As a Liberal Democrat, my opposition is rooted in our party’s fundamental liberal belief in free expression, particularly in situations involving conflict resolution.
To boycott Israeli academics, including liberal individuals who strongly disagree with the Israeli government, is not only illiberal, it is also perverse. Imagine a boycott of British universities and academics, based on our government’s disgraceful conduct of the war in Iraq!
Almost worse is the suggestion that Israeli academics might be exempted from a boycott if they distance themselves from their government’s policies. Presumably the proponents of the boycott are planning to summon up the shade of Joe McCarthy to supervise this exercise in thought control?
The proposed boycott is also perverse because it singles out Israel among all the countries of the world. Israel, for all its faults, is a parliamentary democracy. Its universities, like British universities, are open to all citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity. I have been to the Hebrew University and met Arab students, including some who came from the Palestinian territories, and some who came from Israel itself. There are also many overseas students at Israel’s universities. Israel enjoys the same academic freedom as does this country and other democracies.
The tragic irony of singling out Israel is that no other Middle Eastern country has academic freedom, so why only boycott Israel? When other Middle Eastern countries are infringing human rights in ways that directly affect academic freedom, why is the UCU silent?
To randomly select an example, Amnesty International’s 2007 report on Saudi Arabia says: “Hamza al-Muzaini, an academic who allegedly criticized a cleric in an article, was fined in May by the Ministry of Information. He was physically attacked and branded an ‘infidel’ in September by a group of young men as he gave a speech on reform of the school curriculum.” Where is the UCU’s condemnation of this? Why is it only Israel that stands condemned? The UCU is naïve to focus on Israel, while ignoring the brutalities inflicted by dictatorships across the Middle East.
The motion to be debated at conference (printed in full, below) does not seek to deny that the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are suffering immensely, with severe problems at their academic facilities. The way to change this is to bring about a peaceful solution that includes a Palestinian state living alongside Israel.
For this to happen, there must be maximum dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian academics, and the wider international community of academics, including in this country. Slamming doors in the face of dialogue with Israeli academics will help nobody and will actually make things worse, delaying the negotiation of a two-state solution and a Palestinian state.
* Matthew Harris is a London Liberal Democrat activist who first joined the Liberal Party in 1986. You can find further information at www.stoptheboycott.org.
This is the full text of the motion to be debated at the Liberal Democrat federal conference in Brighton on Sunday, 16th September, at 2.50 pm.
Academic Boycott of Israel
Finchley & Golders Green
Mover: Monroe Palmer
Summation: Jonathan Davies
Conference notes that, at its annual conference on 30 May 2007, the University and College Union (UCU) passed a motion effectively calling for an academic boycott of Israel.
Conference believes that:
i) Academic freedom and the exchange of ideas are of paramount importance in conflict resolution.
ii) Many Israeli academics have been at the forefront of opposition to illiberal Israeli government policies, so it is entirely counter-productive to sever links with such academics.
iii) It is wrong to boycott individuals on account of their nationality, whatever policies their country’s government pursues.
iv) Israeli academics can no more be held accountable for Israeli government policy than British academics can be held accountable for British government policy.
v) It is perverse for academics to boycott only Israel, if other countries with far worse records of academic freedom are not also to be boycotted.
vi) Israeli universities are centres of free debate and discussion including Jews, Christians and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians.
vii) A British academic boycott does nothing to bring a negotiated solution to the problems of Israel and Palestine closer, and is in fact actively counter-productive, as it discourages dialogue between the very people who should most be talking.
Conference further notes that the boycott has been condemned by the Palestinian president of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, Sari Nusseibeh, in a joint statement with Menachem Magidor, the Israeli president of the Hebrew University in West Jerusalem.
1. Condemns the UCU’s decision to call for an academic boycott of Israel.
2. Urges the UCU’s general secretary, Sally Hunt, to fulfil her manifesto pledge to put any pro-boycott resolution to a referendum of the union’s full membership.
3. Urges all UCU members to vote to reject the boycott proposal.
4. Urges academics to continue to engage in the fullest possible dialogue with their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts.
5. Condemns academic boycotts in general.