Sanctions can work...

May 13, 2005

The AUT boycott is part of a tradition of non-violent protest, argue Hilary Rose and Steven Rose

Just 50 years ago, six years after the call from the African National Congress, 496 British academics published a letter advocating the boycott of South African universities as an expression of solidarity with two anti-apartheid academics served with banning orders by the supremacist regime. In Britain, the Association of University Teachers endorsed the boycott call and sustained this position with honour for 20 years.

Today, leading figures from the South African struggle - from the non-violent Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Ronnie Kasrils, ANC intelligence minister - agree that the situation of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation is even worse than that of black South Africans under apartheid.

The Israeli Government flouts UN resolutions, imposes collective punishments, curfews, road blocks and house demolitions, and sanctions murders and the shooting of civilians, not least children, with impunity.

Palestinian popular resistance has ranged from brutally suppressed peaceful demonstrations to the horrors of suicide bombing.

Amid this, our Palestinian colleagues and their students have their academic freedom - indeed, their very right to education - routinely denied by the Israeli occupying forces. The Israeli version of Pass Laws - ID cards - restrict Palestinian movement even within the West Bank and Gaza.

Students may be prevented from getting to classes and academics from moving between campuses on the most specious grounds. An assistant professor is told he cannot give a lecture as he is "not a professor" or that he is "under 45" and so not allowed through a checkpoint. Scientific researchers are blocked from obtaining routine items of equipment without permission from the military; academic journals get "lost" in the post. Even British academic support organisations have to go through elaborate procedures to guarantee the safe arrival of textbooks to help impoverished universities.

On top of all of this came the wall - the 450km barrier that cuts deep into Palestinian territory. It seemed to be a historic victory for those seeking a just peace when last July the wall was ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice, which gave muscle to its ruling by recommending to the UN that sanctions be imposed on Israel if its rulings were disobeyed.

Shamefully, the UN has failed to act. Israel knows it can rely on the US to block sanctions just as it stymied moves to impose sanctions against South Africa.

What has been the response of Israeli academic community to this catalogue of human rights abuses and the international court ruling? In addition to the institutional complicities, Israeli academics serve in the military, and are thus integral to or complicit with these routine humiliations and violence. Apart from a handful of brave dissidents, the community is silent. There is no equivalent anger to that of British academia's reaction to the illegal Iraq war. Indeed, in response to the European call for a moratorium, launched in 2002, inviting researchers not to collaborate with colleagues at Israeli universities in making research bids, the universities were swift to set up a joint committee to resist what they called an academic boycott. Those in the Israeli academic community do not consider freedom to be indivisible: the only freedom most seem to care about is their own.

In 2004, in the light of the failure of international organisations and national governments to support the rule of law, a courageous group within Palestinian civil society launched a Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel endorsed by all university trade unions and non-governmental organisations in the occupied territories.

The campaign called on the international academic community to refrain from participating in any form of academic and cultural co-operation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions, but importantly "excluding from the above actions against Israeli institutions any conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state's colonial and racist policies". The campaign asked us to work towards the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural associations and organisations.

It is to this call for international solidarity by its sister unions in Palestine that the AUT responded in April in its resolutions concerning Bar-Ilan and Haifa universities, just as 50 years ago it reacted to the call of the ANC and the 496 British academics for a boycott of South Africa.

It is the least that those outside the troubled region can do in non-violent support of a just peace, and we urge our colleagues to maintain their position, just as they did half a century ago in the case of South Africa.

Hilary Rose is emerita professor, Bradford University, and Steven Rose is professor, Open University.

British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, bricupinfo@yahoo.co.uk

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