'I've no regrets. We've touched a raw nerve'

May 20, 2005

She was denounced by novelist Howard Jacobson as a "woman lecturer peddling the oldest form of hatred", and Jewish community leader Lord Janner called her a "blinkered academic extremist" who has reached the heights of "political idiocy". She received hundreds of abusive emails, two death threats and this week she had to call in the police over a campaign of telephone harassment. She even received a letter from Diana, Princess of Wales' divorce lawyers threatening her with legal action for libel.

But Birmingham University lecturer Sue Blackwell insisted she had "no regrets" about her campaign to convince the 48,000-strong Association of University Teachers to boycott two Israeli universities in protest at their alleged complicity in their Government's human rights abuses.

"All the personal abuse makes me more determined because I think this shows that we have touched a raw nerve to get this kind of reaction," she said.

"Israeli academics are actually doing some soul searching."

The 47-year-old linguistics lecturer has travelled quite a way from her roots as a Conservative-supporting Essex grammar schoolgirl. She swung from evangelical Christianity to Marxism, to become one of the most reviled and to some most revered figures in the international debate on the Middle East.

Ms Blackwell was born in Hockley, near Southend, and had a sheltered and largely apolitical childhood. After Southend High School for Girls, she joined Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1977.

As a committed Christian, she intended to study theology and join the Methodist ministry. But ended up studying classics and anthropology.

"I started out at Cambridge with religious beliefs and ultimately dumped them and decided that I was a Marxist," she said. "There came a point where, as a socialist, I decided that human beings have to change the world themselves and the effective way to do it is through collective action.

That's not really compatible with a belief in a higher being who's going to intervene in human affairs."

But it was after her MPhil in linguistics at Darwin College, Cambridge - which was withheld from her for a year in lieu of outstanding college fees - that she became truly radicalised.

"One of the things that radicalised me was not being able to get a job despite my two Cambridge degrees," she said.

Eventually, she found work as a secretary on a building site. "I turned into a trade unionist when I literally felt the earth move," she said. "I was in a temporary building when they started towing it over the car park because they needed to lay some pipes. As the filing cabinets narrowly missed my head, it occurred to me there was a bit of a health and safety issue."

Her friend's mother worked in the nearby offices of the Transport and General Workers' Union and Ms Blackwell joined up. She discovered the Socialist Workers' Party and joined that. She was a member for 20 years, before she resigned two years ago over the Left's "unprincipled alliances with religious organisations".

Her first academic job was at Lancaster University. She also worked at Lancashire Polytechnic in Preston (now the University of Central Lancashire) and at the Polytechnic of Central London (now Westminster University). She joined Birmingham in 1991.

She claims her interest in the Middle East stems from nothing more than her interest in human rights issues across the globe.

"I regard myself as a socialist and a supporter of all human rights, and I support any campaign that I genuinely believe in," she said. "It is just that if you criticise Israel or support the rights of Palestinians, people make such a fuss about it. In a way I've been pushed into it."

She made the first decisive step in her pro-Palestine campaign in 2002. She removed two links to Israeli universities from her academic website during the fledgling stages of the academic boycott called by Steven Rose of the Open University.

After this, as she put it, "all hell broke loose". "I criticise human rights abuses wherever they take place but if I criticise Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe people don't jump up and say I'm racist because that's a black government. It is only when you criticise Israel that people shout racism at you and that is a double standard.

"Some of those criticising me only criticise racism against Jewish people and they won't criticise racism against Arab people - and you can quote that."

Most provocatively, she is adamant that she regards the state of Israel as "illegitimate".

"It is founded on ethnic cleansing and it has illegal borders," she said.

"They (Israel) are confiscating Palestinian land as we speak. So all this talk about moving towards peace, I can't see it and I'm sure Palestinians can't see it."

The task of those who would brand her an anti-Semite is made easier by some of the links on her personal website.

In October 2002, the Board of Deputies of British Jews complained that her university-hosted website was linked to sites with images "glorifying suicide bombing and comparing Israel with Nazi Germany" - a charge she denies. In 2004, Birmingham banned staff from hosting personal websites on its server, largely as a result of the furore over her pages. Last month, The Jerusalem Post reported that she had a link from her website to MarWen Media, which the newspaper says is "owned by an anti-Semitic neo-Nazi activist" and promotes Holocaust denial.

Ms Blackwell said: "I never knowingly link to any site that supports any form of racism or any form of terrorism. Of all the scrutiny I've faced, the best they've managed to come up with is one page on one site, which I removed after consulting Jewish friends.

"People are portraying it as if I had been actively promoting anti-Semitic material deliberately, which is absolute rubbish."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

I GRADUATED FROM  Cambridge University

MY FIRST JOB WAS working as a secretary on a building site

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS  completing my PhD thesis - after ten years - before the end of the summer

WHAT I HATE MOST IS double standards within politics as well as in one's personal life

IN TEN YEARS I will be retired from academe and writing political novels, with a bit of luck

MY FAVOURITE JOKE  involves an Arab-American who emails his son to explain that he has become too old to plant potatoes in his garden. "My beloved father, please don't touch the garden," his son replies. "That's where I have hidden THE THING." Two hours later the US Army, the Marines, the FBI and the CIA arrive at the old man's house, search every inch of the garden, but fail to find anything. Later the son emails: "My beloved father. I hope the garden is dug up now and you can plant your potatoes."

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