Fine words come cheap, strong action is needed

June 8, 2007

The growing boycott movement has put Israeli academe on the defensive, but more is required, says Lisa Taraki

On the day that UK academics debated motions to boycott Israel the international media reported on a letter addressed to the Israeli defence minister. It had been sent by academics and intellectuals, including the presidents of four Israeli universities, and it called for the lifting of the ban on Gaza students travelling to the West Bank. This move, as well as the recent lobbying tour of UK universities by Israeli academics opposed to the proposed UCU action, and the Israeli foreign minister's intervention with the British government, show that the boycott is already beginning to bite. Far from being ineffective, the action's inexorable expansion into the mainstream is worrying its intended targets. However, the Israeli response is as revealing as it is pathetic.

The intellectual elite's letter notes that "blocking access to higher education for Palestinian students from Gaza who choose to study in the West Bank casts a dark shadow over Israel's image as a state that respects and supports the principle of academic freedom and the right to education". This statement and its timing reveal that far from being motivated by lofty sentiments it has more to do with the public relations campaign to shore up Israel's badly deteriorating international image.

Is this the best they can do? Is it credible that the gravest issue facing higher education for Palestinians today is the inability of students from the Gaza Strip to study at "superior" West Bank universities? Even in the heyday of the "good old" occupation before Oslo, Gaza did not contribute more than a fraction of the West Bank student body. Do the presidents of Israeli universities really intend to convince the world that they are champions of the right to education for Palestinians? Do they hope that this will let them off the hook?

What is the credibility of these "respectable" academics and intellectuals who appeal to a key representative of the repressive occupation machine, a cynical labour boss and politician responsible for much of the death and destruction sown in Palestine and Lebanon since he took office? Instead of making a bold statement against the occupation they ask for the amelioration of some of its more sordid features. This is even further diluted by the suggestion (stated by a member of the organisation that initiated the appeal) that each case be evaluated individually. We all know what "individual evaluation" entails, what its stringent and un-transparent criteria are, and who does the evaluation: the military security establishment itself.

The appeal epitomises what is wrong with the Israeli academy. While throwing a stale crumb our way these academic leaders are silent on the core issue: the deepening of the occupation regime that threatens the lives and futures of all Palestinians, including students and teachers. Not only that, they sidestep the issue of racism and discrimination against Palestinian citizens within the Israeli academy itself.

It continues to be true that the Israeli academy has behaved shamelessly in the matter of stifling of basic freedoms of Palestinians, including the freedom of education. During the past 40 years our universities have been shut down by military order numerous times and for long durations, thousands of our students and teachers have been imprisoned and exiled, and our basic right to free access to our institutions has been violated. Not once have the presidents of Israeli universities, or for that matter any association of Israeli academics, challenged the occupation regime and demanded its dismantlement.

It is ironic that one of the persistent themes in the critique of the academic boycott is the "fact" that the academy has done more than any other sector in Israeli society to campaign for Palestinian rights. This is a hollow claim belied by the fact that only a handful of brave Israeli academics have ever taken a public stand against the occupation.

As an academic at a Palestinian university I remain vindicated in my belief that pressure, and nothing but pressure, will make Israelis, including academics, accede to demands for a radical change in the status quo. This is not about punishment of Israeli academics. Rather, it is based on the assumption that both the vociferous and silent colluders in the academy can be pressured to act to bring about change. The growing boycott movement has put the academy on the defensive, but there are many more miles to be traversed before a truly moral response issues from its spokespersons and rank and file.

Lisa Taraki is a sociologist at Birzeit University in Palestine.

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