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At London Conference, Call for Boycott of Israel Rears Its Head

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A fresh push for an academic boycott of Israel has been launched at an international conference in a London university, in what supporters describe as a newly ambitious strategy to divest from the Jewish state. Organized by the School of African and Oriental Studies’ Palestine Society and attended by around 300 people, “Resisting Israeli Apartheid” was the latest in long-running attempts by some U.K. scholars to embargo their Israeli counterparts.

“Israel is violating every possible right of the Palestinian people and it’s only a question of time before sanctions have to be applied, as in the case of apartheid South Africa,” a Palestine Society spokesman said.

The British Committee for Universities in Palestine, or Bricup, called for a concerted, public effort by academics to break links with Israel by refusing to work with Israeli institutions or attend conferences in the Jewish state.

Last week’s summit, which included speakers such as poet Tom Paulin — who notoriously published a poem describing Israeli soldiers as the “Zionist SS” and has wished for settlers’ deaths — caused outrage among Jewish groups.

Gavin Gross, who heads the school’s Jewish Society, was shocked by the extremism of the views espoused.

“Some of the comments from speakers were things like ‘the occupation started in 1948′ ” — referring to the formation of the State of Israel — “and ‘Zionism is absolutely evil,’ with the actions of the IDF described as similar to, although not on the same scale as, the Nazis,” he said.

“It’s unfortunate that they have chosen now to renew talk of boycotts against Israel when everyone else is talking of peace initiatives for the region,” added Ronnie Fraser of Academic Friends of Israel, which organized an e-mail protest campaign to the school’s governors.

Alarmed at what they viewed as the event’s extremist bias, the Jewish Society and Peace Now U.K. organized a counterconference on the importance of dialogue in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Around 80 people came to hear author and scholar David Cesarini argue that Israel is not an apartheid state, and a plea by former Israeli negotiator Moty Cristal for peace talks rather than divestment.

“There was a lot of hatred,” Cristal said, “although the response to the counterconference was very good. Quite a number of Palestinian students engaged with us.”

The current radicalism on campus stifles discussion, he said: “If the Palestinian call for justice is the destruction of Israel, that’s no basis for dialogue.”

The idea of the boycott can be traced back to a letter in the left-leaning Guardian newspaper on April 6, 2002, written by Professor Steven Rose — who is Jewish — and his wife Hilary, and signed by over 120 scholars, most of them European.

Decrying Israel’s policy of “violent repression against the Palestinian people,” the authors wrote, “Many national and European cultural and research institutions regard Israel as a European state for the purposes of awarding grants and contracts. Would it not therefore be timely if a moratorium was called upon any further such support unless and until Israel abides by U.N. resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians?”

The issue sporadically made headlines through incidents such as the June 2002 dismissal of two Israeli professors from the editorial board of a pair of academic journals run by Mona Baker, a Manchester lecturer. But Hilary Rose, now Bricup’s co-convenor, believes the issue is entering a new and more ambitious stage.

“The 2002 letter was limited to calling for a moratorium on E.U. research projects, and not collaborating with Israelis attached to Israeli universities,” she says. “That was the first phase, a modest call.”

Spurred by boycott calls from Palestinian academics, trade unions and NGOs, Bricup has grander aims that include lobbying the European Union and the British government to exclude Israel from the European Research Area, as well as encouraging individual academics to break professional ties with Israel.

Many people are protesting quietly by privately boycotting Israeli products and institutions, Rose said. But for sanctions to be really powerful, they need to be organized and public, she added.

“It’s about not treating relations with Israel as if it were a normal state,” she said.

As for talking to Israelis rather than shunning them, Rose believes the time is not right.

“Dialogue is fine, once you’ve secured justice,” she said.

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