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Campus ferment: Why UK universities are boycotting their Israeli colleagues


Lucy Hodgson
The Independent (UK)
15 May 2002


The situation in the Middle East is beginning to spill over into British universities. Academics are becoming restless. Members of the Association of University Teachers (AUT), meeting in Eastbourne last weekend, voted for a funding boycott of Israeli universities. That followed a more wide-reaching decision by the leaders of the other lecturers' union, NATFHE, for a straight boycott of all links between universities in the United Kingdom and those in Israel.

The parallel case is apartheid South Africa, says David Margolies, who chairs the AUT's European and international affairs committee. British lecturers are hoping that a moratorium on all European Union funding of Israeli cultural and research institutions will increase the pressure on the Israeli government to return to the negotiating table.

NATFHE's decision for a straight boycott has caused quite a stir. Tom Wilson, the head of NATFHE's universities department, outlined the arguments in an article in Education on 18 April. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was devastating Palestinian universities such as Birzeit, Jenin, Bethlehem and Hebron, he said. Staff and students had been killed or injured. "Suspending academic ties is a rational step," he said. "If UK academics care about their profession, they should support a boycott."

NATFHE has received many letters in support of that view, according to Tom Wilson. But the union is keen that individual academics should keep open their links with sympathetic colleagues in Israel, and do not treat a boycott as meaning that they should sever all connections.

British academics are also concerned about the climate of fear that is growing on American university campuses in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. A professor, Sami Al-Arian, was sacked from the University of South Florida for questioning the war on terrorism in a television interview.

"A new McCarthyism is abroad in the United States," David Margolies says. "It is considered unpatriotic just to bring up the question of Palestine. It's like something that can't be discussed. It's like discussing whether paedophilia should be allowed. Everyone wants to be seen as super-clean."

Academics in Britain are concerned about an organisation, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which, they say, is conducting a campaign against academics who have views that are not wholly supportive of Israel. The driving force behind the council is Lynne Cheney, the wife of the American Vice-President, Dick Cheney, and the former chairman of the National Foundation for the Humanities, who waged a war against political correctness on campus.

At its meeting last weekend, the AUT voted against the restrictions on their US colleagues. "Academic freedom is a cornerstone of our democratic processes and of our universities, and it must be maintained and protected at a time of such international tension and at a time of increased commercialism in education," said the motion.

Academics in Britain are not under the same pressures because the political debate is framed differently in Europe. But, according to Mr Margolies, there is a general sense in Britain that maybe the issue should not be discussed openly. Knowledge of Middle East affairs may be a little better in Britain than America. But the Glasgow Media Group pointed recently to an astonishing ignorance about the history of the area. No one can afford to be complacent, according to Mr Margolies.