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Academics split on Israel sanctions

By Patrick Lawnham
The Australian
May 22, 2002

ACADEMICS are divided to a degree not seen since pro-Arab dons angered the Hawke government by criticising the Gulf War a decade ago, and again the issue is the Middle East.

More than 90 university teachers and researchers have joined a small but growing campaign for Western sanctions to force Israel to the peace table with the Palestinians.

They have signed a petition begun by two supporters of multiculturalism – one Jewish and one from a Lebanese family – who want to isolate Israel from scientific, cultural and academic contacts until serious peace efforts begin.

The number of petitioners is so far relatively low – more than 40,000 academics work in Australia – but they have already met resistance. More than 50 academics, led by sociologist Sol Encel of the University of NSW, have signed a counter-petition.

The minister-counsellor at the Israeli embassy in Canberra, Michael Ronen, yesterday described the boycott campaign as "ridiculous" and "anti-democratic", and said its supporters were "not pro anything – not pro-Palestinian, just anti-Israel".

The petition's initiators are John Docker, a Jewish-Australian author and fellow of the Australian National University's humanities research centre, and senior lecturer and author Ghassan Hage of Sydney University's anthropology department, who is a Christian Lebanese Australian.

The pair say they are far from being anti-Israel. Dr Hage said the petition was "a sensitive issue". "We both have lots of good friends and even relatives in Israel and many friendships with Israeli academics," he said.

Dr Docker said they believed a move for Middle East peace could grow in universities and influence governments, and compared the campaign to the pressure for sanctions against South Africa over apartheid.

The petition seeks a ban on joint research programs with Israeli universities, attending conferences in Israel and disclosing information to Israeli academics.

A letter from the pro-sanctions academics is published in today's Higher Education supplement.

Geoffrey Levey, a signatory of the counter-petition and co-ordinator of the UNSW program in Jewish studies, said a boycott would "violate academic freedom and arrest scientific, intellectual and cultural exchange".

The following is the academic's letter to the editor. I scanned it in so there is no link.

Boycott just the way to rap Israel

DESPITE widespread international condemnation for its policy of violent repression against the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories, the Israeli Government appears impervious to moral appeals from world leaders.

It is clear that while the Palestinians are rightly requested to rein in their extremists, the Israelis have elected their extremists to power.

The slow, dehumanising and relentless colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza that has been continuing unabated in recent years has taken a murderous turn of immense proportions. How long are we, the citizens of a Western democracy, going to accept the silence of our Government in the face of the rampages of the Israeli army in the West Bank? How long are we going to look passively at the Israeli crimes of war perpetrated daily and systematically, not as something anomalous, but as a matter of national policy?

In the face of our Government's unwillingness or inability to act, civil society must step in to exert pressure against the continuation of this anachronistic act of colonisation. In a globalised world, our passivity as citizens of the world in the face of such inhumanity will stain all of us.

Academics and intellectuals, as always, can play a role in fostering the growth of such a non-violent movement within civil society. It is in this spirit that we call for a boycott of research and cultural links with Israel.

We urge our colleagues not to attend conferences in Israel; to pressure our universities to suspend any existing exchange or linkage arrangements; and to refuse to distribute scholarship and academic position information. We note that while some academics and intellectuals in Israel oppose the Government and some also are involved in co-operative Israeli-Palestinian research projects, the majority have either supported the Israeli army onslaught on the Palestinians, or failed to voice any significant protest against it.

The boycott we propose will inevitably also adversely affect those who don't deserve it, and we regret that this has to happen. We ask our Israeli colleagues and friends to bear with us in solidarity. They know as well as we A do that what they will endure because of these boycotts is minimal compared to what the Palestinian people and their academics continue to endure. As with boycotts against apartheid South Africa, urgent international action is now required to stop the massacres perpetrated against the Palestinian people.