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In Britain, U.s, Sides Rearming in Struggle over Israel Boycott

June 2, 2005
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A British teachers union has decided to retract its ban on two Israeli universities, but the boycott battle in British academia looks to be far from over. Both those calling for links to be severed with Israeli institutions, and those hailing the Jewish state as a beacon of academic freedom, are preparing to regroup and rearm for the next confrontation.

There was widespread jubilation among pro-Israel activists May 26 when the council of the 48,000-member Association of University Teachers canceled the previous month’s motion blacklisting Haifa University for allegedly persecuting anti-Zionist lecturer Ilan Pappe and Bar-Ilan University for cooperating with a West Bank college.

That policy sparked international condemnation and led to a backlash, culminating in last week’s specially convened session that overturned the boycott motion by a 2-1 vote.

The British government welcomed the decision. Kim Howells, the Cabinet’s newly appointed Middle East minister, said “the best way we can help achieve a peaceful resolution in the region is to encourage both sides to take the steps necessary for progress through close engagement. We do not believe that sanctions and boycotts help toward that aim.”

Both sides of the debate claimed the decision as a victory.

“It’s fantastic to see the balance of reason” restored, said a spokesman for the Campaign Group for Academic Freedom, a Jewish-led organization formed to overturn the AUT’s boycott decision.

“We hope the unambiguous results” will put an end to “any further misleading and destructive maneuvers, and allow British scholars to build bridges and promote peace in the Middle East,” said Ronnie Fraser, chair of the Academic Friends of Israel lobby group.

Palestinian campaigners say they expected to lose the AUT fight — blaming intense lobbying and a “disinformation” campaign by a well-organized opposition, backed by the Israeli government — but believe it has put them on course to win the boycott war.

Not only were they given the opportunity to raise Palestinian “rights” at a time when relative calm has taken the conflict out of international headlines, but they also ensured that the idea of a boycott was placed firmly on the agenda.

They hope to capitalize on their comparison of Israel and apartheid South Africa through the aid of South African institutions, including church councils and prominent African National Council politicians.

“We gave notice,” said a spokesman for the British University Committee for the Universities of Palestine, a coordinating group for the boycott campaign. “This is not some simple short-term battle to be decided by a vote at one meeting or another.

“People of conscience worldwide, in their families, in their communities, in their trade unions will ensure that the boycott movement will grow and continue until a just peace is secured.”

British Jewish leaders are concerned that this is far from an empty threat. The boycott movement seems to have refined its methods since its launch in an April 2002 letter to the left-wing Guardian newspaper by professors Steven and Hilary Rose, who proposed a moratorium on European support for Israeli academia.

Their petition was followed by sporadic individual efforts. But the movement began to truly gather steam following the formation of the boycott coordinating group last year and an international conference held at a London college last December on strategies to resist “Israeli apartheid.”

Activists, whose sweeping boycott motion in 2003 was overwhelmingly rejected by the AUT council, developed a more targeted policy, taking advantage of pressures of time, attendance and internal association politics to give their new motion the best chance of success.

Fraser, a lecturer in math at Barnet College in London, sees the boycott movement as the culmination of a long process that has seen left-wing British academia become increasingly hostile to Israel.

Others see it as a symptom of a wider anti-Jewish prejudice.

“What is it about certain areas of U.K. academia that finds every opportunity to slam Israel?” asked a spokesman for the Campaign Group. “To many in the community, this has all the hallmarks of anti-Semitism because it seeks to delegitimize, demonize and judge Israel by double standards.”

Boycott supporters deny that anti-Semitism is a motive.

Outside of Britain, boycott opponents applauded the AUT’s move.

“This wasn’t a victory in the true sense where we’ve won the war; we’ve just won the battle,” said Juda Engelmayer, chief communications officer for the American Jewish Congress, which coordinated letters of protest to the AUT from Congress and a group of Rhodes Scholars and encouraged its members to do the same.

Just after the AUT revoked the boycott, another British college teachers’ union was taking up the issue.

At its annual conference May 28-30, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education was set to consider a resolution calling for boycotts against Israeli universities, according to Ed Beck, president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a group that promotes Israeli-Palestinian peace and aims to counter anti-Zionist messages.

Additionally, the Palestinian Union of University Teachers and Employees called for the resignation of Al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh, who condemned the AUT boycott, for issuing a joint statement with Hebrew University President Menachem Magidor supporting academic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Pro-Israel activists say the activity spawned by the AUT boycott has helped lay the groundwork for future battles.

Both Scholars for Peace and the Association for Jewish Studies, an international association for professors of Jewish studies, issued condemnations against the boycott and encouraged members to ask other academic associations to protest the AUT boycott.

Some groups, such as the American Association of University Professors, issued a strong statement of condemnation. The group took particular note of the boycott’s exemption for Israeli professors who object to their state’s “colonial and racist policies,” saying that “deepens the injury to academic freedom rather than mitigates it” because it “requires compliance with a political or ideological test in order for an academic relationship to continue.”

Other North American groups were silent.

The National Education Association, for example, told Scholars for Peace that it would not consider the issue, and gave no further explanation, Beck said.

In Canada, the president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers said the group would take no action on the matter since the AUT was reconsidering its stance.

Scholars for Peace urged its roughly 650 members to write letters of protest to the AUT. The group also worked with the Anti-Defamation League to collect more than 450 names of university faculty from around the world for a petition delivered to the AUT.

The group also encouraged faculty to apply for affiliate faculty appointments at the blacklisted Israeli universities. Some 400 faculty have applied for affiliate appointments, Beck said.

“The thing that we learned is that people were able to separate their feelings from the current government of Israel, Israeli policy and the question of academic freedom and scholarship, and they were able to land on the issue of the academic boycott as a violation of academic freedom,” he said.

Some people, such as Jeff Weintraub, a social and political theorist at the University of Pennsylvania, worked on their own to make a difference.

Weintraub drafted an online petition to academic associations endorsing the American Association of University Professors’ statement and asking other academic associations to adopt it. To date, he has garnered nearly 5,000 signatures.

On the whole, the British Jewish community was encouraged by the support it received for its anti-boycott efforts.

“We’ve seen a situation we haven’t seen for a long time, where Israeli policy can be healthily debated in the U.K. without questioning Israel’s right to exist,” said a spokesman for the Campaign Group for Academic Freedom.

JTA Staff Writer Rachel Pomerance in New York contributed to this story.

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