|Monday, October 1, 2007
|Boycott battle won
- the war goes on
Manfred Gerstenfeld ,
Published in The Jerusalem Post Oct. 1, 2007
A few days ago the University and College Union
(UCU) in the UK announced the termination of its involvement with plans for an
academic boycott of Israel, because such an action would be illegal under
British law. And so one five-year-old anti-Israeli battle may have come to an
The boycott campaign against Israel on campus in the 21st century
has its origins in the United Kingdom. It can be traced back to an open letter
by academics in The Guardian on April 6, 2002. Since then there have been many
efforts to organize anti-Israeli actions both on campuses and in broader
academic frameworks in several countries. In some universities these have led
to outbursts of anti-Semitism accompanied by violence.
The most recent
campaign against Israeli academics in the United Kingdom came at the annual
conference of the UCU at the end of May 2007 in Bournemouth. A motion was
passed there calling for a debate on a comprehensive and consistent boycott of
Israeli academic institutions. One hundred fifty-eight delegates voted in favor
and 99 against.
One important actor against the boycott was the Bar
Ilan university-based International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom (IAB).
Another was Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), an independent
international group of faculty members. By mid-September 2007 11,000 academics
had signed its petition against the boycott, including 33 Nobel Prize winners
and 58 college and university heads.
In early August a full-page ad,
sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, was published in The New York Times
in which close to 300 American university and college presidents declared they
would not work with institutions that were boycotting Israeli academics.
The ad stated: "Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours, Too."
By the time the boycott was abandoned the number of signatories had
risen to over 450. Over 20 Canadian universities came out against the boycott
TONY BLAIR, while still British prime minister condemned the
boycott. So did many other British politicians. Opposition leader David Cameron
of the Conservative party, affirmed his solidarity with Israel saying, "If by
Zionist you mean that the Jews have the right to a homeland in Israel and the
right to a country then I am a Zionist."
There were many individual
actions as well. The American Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg decided not to
travel to Britain for a lecture at Imperial College in London. The Goldhirsh
Foundation, an American $150 million research sponsor, stated that it would not
fund British research anymore. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz announced
that he would sue UK universities and British academics who supported the
boycott, using a variety of legal tactics.
The battle surrounding the
UCU motion showed many recurring elements from earlier boycott attempts. Yet a
number of new ones also came to the fore.
Ronnie Fraser, director of
the UK organization Academic Friends of Israel, believes that the original
boycott leaders have been supplanted and that the trade union campaign against
Israel is now centrally orchestrated by extreme left-wing bodies.
RECENT campaign also confirms earlier assessments that the extreme Left's
interest in the Middle East issue does not derive from concern about
Palestinians. One can gauge this from the lack of reaction when Palestinians
murder each other or when hundreds of them are killed in Iraq by other Arabs.
For the extreme Left the boycott action is primarily a tool to regain a place
on the British public stage.
A number boycott opponents probably did
not act out of sympathy for Israel. Otherwise they would have condemned the
boycott on earlier occasions. They started realizing that this boycott would be
a dangerous precedent and make academia more vulnerable to other attacks.
For many of the pro- as well as anti-boycotters, then, issues were at
stake, which went far beyond both the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and academic
From the Israeli viewpoint the victory in one battle should
not be interpreted wrongly. A few years ago, when there was a temporary lull in
the boycott efforts, Israeli authorities and university managements thought
that they could ignore the matter further. They were rudely awakened in 2005
when the boycott issue was successfully raised again in the UK.
numerous diehard enemies of Israel on campuses in the UK and elsewhere will
continue their war for many years to come. Therefore the abandonment of the UCU
boycott is an opportunity for reflection on how to continue to turn Israel's
accusers on the campus systematically into the accused.
is chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
His book Academics against Israel and the Jews will appear next month.