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University closures add fuel to boycott campaign

Polly Curtis
The Guardian
January 17, 2003

Academic boycott advocates said today that the closure of two Palestinian universities would add weight to their calls to sever links with Israeli institutions.

In the early hours of yesterday Israeli troops issued closure orders to two academic institutions, the Hebron University and Palestinian Polytechnic University, also in Hebron.

Israeli ministers said that the closures were part of a response to last week's suicide bomb attacks in Tel Aviv. They say that chemistry and computer labs at the universities were being used to research and train terrorists to build bombs.

Palestinian supporters of the university called the closures a "major crisis".

The debate over an academic boycott of Israel has been dividing academic communities in the UK and abroad since Mona Baker, a linguist at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, sacked two Israeli academics from the board of a small journal. Academics are divided over whether it is ever worth compromising academic work because of a political situation and, if so, whether the Israeli government's actions are dire enough to warrant this action.

Colwyn Williamson, secretary of the Campaign for Academic Freedom and Standards, which supports the boycott, said that the closure of the universities would force a lot of academics to reconsider their position.

"Presumably it will put pressure on Natfhe to play a more active role in promoting its policy of severing links, and on the Association of University Teachers (AUT) to highlight its moratorium on funding for Israeli universities. They have the policies but have been inactive in implementing them," he said.

"We don't know whether the facilities are being used for terroristic activities. I imagine that the universities, like elsewhere, are hotbeds of political opinion - that is the nature of universities. But it is no justification for closing them down and it is going to be regarded as outrageous by a lot of academics."

However, opponents of a boycott said that the closures would not change their view. Susan Bassnett, pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Warwick, said: "I'm not in favour of academic boycotts. I think that they are very risky. Unless there is wholehearted consistent support, I think it risks targeting individuals, I am totally opposed to that because it is basically Stalinist.

"Obviously one deplores the shutting of a university, but I don't see what good a boycott against individuals can have where those individuals themselves could be totally against the closures also," she said.

Sue Blackwell, a lecturer in English at Birmingham university, who has been campaigning for the boycott, said: "The pressure will be on AUT and Natfhe to pass stronger motions. This will certainly add fuel to the arguments for an academic boycott. There's widespread sympathy for the staff at the universities. It might be grounds for investigating the chemistry lab, but not shutting down the universities. I think there will be widespread condemnation among the academic community about this."

She said that she was putting together a motion to put to the AUT for all members to join the boycott.

But a statement from Paul Cottrell, assistant general secretary of the AUT, fell short of any further action: "The forced closure of Palestinian universities by Israel is a barbaric act which will be condemned by all those who believe in freedom of thought, democracy and the fundamental value of education. It will alienate many Palestinians who are campaigning for a peaceful solution to the present conflict and serve to further isolate Israel from the international academic community."

The AUT was also a signatory to a motion by the European Higher Education Committee - part of the international coalition of education unions, Education International, which represents 26 million teaching staff worldwide - last weekend that condemned the suicide bombings and the closure of any universities in the occupied territories.

The committees current policy is to call for a moratorium on European funding of Israeli research institutions until Israel "abides by UN resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians".