'To some extent we've given up being Israelis'

April 6, 2007

The Israeli history professor and peace activist who wants to see a European centre for Palestinian studies at Exeter is no stranger to controversy. Melanie Newman reports

A controversial Israeli academic is hoping to set up a European centre for Palestinian studies at Exeter University.

Ilan Pappé, who has been appointed chair of history at Exeter, is known as a prominent peace activist in Israel. He has written a book on Israel's "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians and supported the 2005 boycott of Israeli academics.

Speaking to The Times Higher this week, Professor Pappé said: "There is a centre for Palestinian studies in Washington, but there is nothing similar in Europe. I hope it would be formed through a joint effort by academics committed to the Palestinian cause.

"There is so much at stake - Palestine is so important to world stability.

Through the centre, academics would be able to contribute, alongside politicians and activists, to ending the complex problems of the area."

Alan Booth, head of history at Exeter's Cornwall campus, is backing Professor Pappé. He said: "A centre for Palestinian studies would fit in with the university's long-established interest in the region and the School of Humanities and Social Science's desire to become a world specialist in research in 'ethnopolitics' and 'ethnoconflict'."

But the desire to help set up a Palestinian studies centre was just one factor that influenced Professor Pappé's decision to leave Israel, where he was senior lecturer in the department of political science at Haifa University. The pressure that was exerted on him as an academic as a result of his views was another.

He claims to have been ostracised by fellow academics in Israel and that his career has suffered. Among the accusations levelled against him, in Israel and abroad, is that his work is influenced by his ideology and that he is anti-Semitic.

Professor Pappé does not deny the former charge about his work, saying: "Had my ideology fitted the state ideology, nobody would have complained."

On the latter point he says that criticisms of Israel are often confused with anti-Semitism. He believes the two should be kept firmly separate.

"International condemnation of Israel because of its ideology and its abuse of human rights is justified," he said. "The world questioned the right of South Africa to exist under apartheid. It's not a question of a right to exist - of course Jews have a right to self-determination. The state has a right to exist. It does not have the right to take away the rights of the indigenous population."

Israel's political instability has resulted in a brain drain" of academics, and Professor Pappé said the region's volatility had also influenced his decision to leave.

"A country that has spent 60 years in conflict, with little chance of resolution, is not conducive to academic work. It was impossible to teach in such a charged and indoctrinated atmosphere."

Asked whether he and his family would return to Israel, he replied: "We may or may not."

But Professor Pappé may find that Britain is not the haven of peace and tolerance he seeks. Jewish students' groups have already complained about his appointment, saying he is "anti-Zionist".

He was taken on by Exeter after an open advertisement, and the university has been quick to point out that the professor, who will be teaching BA history degree students an introductory course on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, was recruited from a "highly competitive field".

Professor Pappé said: "Many Israeli academics, some of whom have been critical of state policy, have been appointed to British universities. We have been appointed on merit, regardless of the country we came from or our political view, which is as it should be."

How does this gel with his support for a boycott of Israel's academics? "That applied to Israeli institutions, not individuals, and we are not coming to this country as ambassadors or agencies for Israel," he replied.

"In any case, our departure from Israel means that to some extent we've given up being Israelis."

The unfavourable reaction from the Jewish students did not surprise him.

"Jewish student organisations have ceased to care for the interests and concerns of Jewish students but have become a front for the Zionist point of view. They act as an arm of the Israeli Embassy," he said.

In the US, he added, local Jewish organisations had attempted to block appearances by lecturers critical of Israeli policies.

"In most cases they fail, to the credit of US universities," he said. "The drive is now to create 'centres for Israeli studies' - academic enclaves where the pro-Israeli lobby feels more secure."

The extent to which Jewish academics and students are seen as representatives of the state of Israel is central to debate on anti-Semitism, one that touches many aspects of the professor's work, as well as his call for the academic boycott.

"Israel's attempts to justify its crimes against the Palestinians by saying it is preventing anti-Semitism have created a connection between Jews everywhere and Israel. Every synagogue becomes an embassy," Pappé said.

By concentrating their efforts on defending Israel, Jewish student groups were exacerbating this perception, he said. They then risked drawing Muslim anger against the state of Israel upon themselves, he added.

Although such statements are likely to inflame tensions on campus, Professor Pappé is optimistic he will not come under the same pressure. "I really hope that my presence in Britain will be a positive move for Jews and Arabs," he said.

In Exeter, the professor will contribute to a new five-year international study on the effect of ethnicity on politics and society led by Gareth Stansfield, associate professor in Middle East politics.

"It's an interesting attempt to understand the connection between political, cultural and national identity," Professor Pappé said.

He also plans to expand his work on "people's history".


Anti-Semitism: concern on campus

  • The Government supported the findings of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into anti-Semitism on campus in its response which was published last week
  • The Government noted "very real concerns" that universities' response to anti-Semitism on campus has not been consistent across the higher education field
  • It agreed with the inquiry committee in opposing calls to boycott Israeli academics
  • The Government opposed attempts to delegitimise Jewish societies
  • The response strongly encouraged Universities UK to meet the inquiry committee to discuss what universities were doing currently and what more should be done in response to anti-Semitism
  • The inquiry recommended that vice-chancellors set up a working party to tackle the issue.

Anti-Semitism:  how it is defined by Europe

The European Monitoring Committee's controversial definition lists examples of the ways in which anti-Semitism might manifest itself with regards to Israel. These include denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination, for example by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour.

The definition warns that the "overall context" must be taken into account", however, and says "criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic".

Other examples of anti-Semitism given in the definition include:

  • Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected of any other democratic nation
  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary policy to that of the Nazis
  • Holding all Jews responsible for the actions of the state of Israel.

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