Alarm at bid to revive boycott

December 3, 2004

A row has broken out over moves to revive the academic boycott of Israel with a major international conference this weekend at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies.

Pro-Israel groups and individual campaigners have called for the conference, on Sunday, to be called off and warned that it could break laws against the incitement of racial hatred.

The Union of Jewish Students was due to meet Colin Bundy, the director of Soas, as The Times Higher went to press, to raise concerns that the event might fuel racial tensions on campus and put students at risk.

But Hillary Rose, one of the event's key speakers and co-founder of the academic boycott of Israel, hit back this week.

"It is an old, old game to say that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. It is offensive, it will not wash and no serious academic should be engaged by that," she said.

The conference, "Resisting Israeli apartheid, strategies and principles", is organised by the students' Soas Palestinian Society and supported by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

Tom Paulin, the Oxford University poet who in a disputed newspaper article was reported to have said that settlers in the Israeli-occupied territories should be "shot dead", is the conference's keynote speaker.

Mona Baker, the Manchester University academic who sparked an international outcry when she sacked two Israeli academics from the editorial board of one of her journals, will also speak.

Ronnie Fraser, an active member of the Academic Friends of Israel, said:

"Conferences such as these are designed to hate and not educate. It is inappropriate that Tom Paulin be allowed to address a meeting being held in London university buildings. Is it not the responsibility of the university to ensure that incitement to racial hatred does not take place on its premises?"

Dr Paulin was quoted in an Egyptian newspaper in 2002 as saying that "Brooklyn-born" settlers in the Gaza Strip and West Bank were "Nazis and racists" who should be "shot dead".

He later said he had been misquoted, explaining he is a lifelong opponent of anti-Semitism and was in favour of efforts to achieve a two-state solution to the conflict. "I do not support attacks on Israeli civilians under any circumstances," he said in a letter to a newspaper.

Oxford launched an inquiry into his comments but has refused to reveal its findings.

Danny Stone, campaigns organiser for the Union of Jewish Students, said he accepted that Soas was merely hiring out rooms for the event, and was not endorsing the conference, but he said that the union would meet Soas managers this week to discuss the "implications" of the event.

He said he was concerned about the safety of Jewish students on campus if tensions were inflamed by speakers or if legitimate criticism of the Israeli Government "crossed the red line" into anti-Semitism or caused incitement to racial hatred.

In letters of protest seen by The Times Higher , one complainant strongly objects to the comparison of Israel and the apartheid regime of South Africa. "The term, Israeli apartheid, is as much an insult to Israel as it is an insult to those South Africans who suffered under an apartheid regime," he says.

Another says the list of speakers, which includes Jewish academic Ilan Pappe, suggests that the meeting will be "a one-sided, anti-Israel hate-fest".

Professor Bundy said in a prepared statement: "The school does not identify itself with any of the views that may be expressed at the conference, just as it does not with those expressed at any other conference held at Soas.

"Student union societies follow the school's guidelines on the conduct of meetings held on school premises.

"Unless there are clear and exceptional reasons to do so, it is not the policy of the school to interfere in what is discussed at such conferences or to prescribe the form conferences should take."

Speaking to The Times Higher , he added: "Soas is proud of its coverage of Middle Eastern topics, including Arab-Israeli relations, and believes that the depth, breadth and fairness of its coverage is unequalled at any British university."

The Soas Palestinian Society said it was concerned that there was a concerted campaign to silence criticism of Israel on campuses.

A planned meeting called "Israel-Palestine: is there a new apartheid in the Holy Land", organised by the Friends of Palestine society at Warwick University, was called off last week after intense lobbying, only to be resurrected at the 11th hour.

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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