Divide and Rule?

As reader in Israeli studies at Soas, University of London, I teach the Israel-Palestine conflict to large classes that include Palestinians, Israelis, Jews and Muslims. I do this without any difficulties in the multicultural environment at Soas, and I work hard for all my students. I am also a loyal trade unionist. While my union, the University and College Union (UCU), does not directly call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions – presumably for fear of legal action – the spirit of last week’s motion is just that.

The UCU initiative effectively hinders me in doing my job, since it frowns upon contacts with Israeli universities and, implicitly, with its academics. It would impede archival research. Should I now tell my students who spend time researching in Israel not to do so? If they disregard this advice, how should I approach the eventual marking of their theses?

Ironically, I have been a supporter of the Israeli peace movement for decades, publicly opposed the Jewish settlements on the West Bank from the outset and been an advocate of a Palestinian state since the six day war in 1967. Yet, paradoxically, my academic expertise is the Israeli right. Do I now have to cut off contact with its members, even though my own views are diametrically opposed to theirs? How do I continue to do research in this area?


Since the resolution argues that “passivity or neutrality is unacceptable”, do I now have to self-censor my lectures in order to adapt to the union’s view of the Israel-Palestine conflict?

I will shortly be presenting a paper at the annual conference of the Association of Israeli Studies. Should I fraternise with my American colleagues, although some of them may support Bush’s war in Iraq, and cold-shoulder my Israeli ones, even though they overwhelmingly identify with the Israeli peace camp? Perhaps I should argue that Israeli studies is not really an authentic discipline and that the association should dissolve itself.

UCU has agreed to finance a travelling roadshow to UK campuses of that section of Palestinian academia committed to the boycott. Is this in reality the first step towards banning visiting Israelis? I recently facilitated a “day of negotiations” at Soas between Israeli and Palestinian academics, including the Palestinian ambassador and a retired Israeli brigadier general. Would the union condemn the very idea of such a discourse, since Israelis are present?

Several of my students identify with Israel, but not with its government’s policies. The resolution speaks only of “criticism of Israel”. Is the underlying meaning that Israel is an illegitimate entity? Should I heed “the moral implications” of the resolution and thereby advise my undergraduates not to spend a year at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University?

To whom can I turn for advice in this Kafkaesque situation? My union? My local branch at Soas? Will UCU vote for the Canadian resolution at the forthcoming Educational International Congress that “excellence in higher education rests upon ironclad guarantees of academic freedom, which includes the right of higher education teaching personnel to engage in teaching, research and scholarship without interference”? If it does, then why is my case deemed to be outside the box?

Boycotts spawn boycotts

The union leadership does not seem to have even heard of the forthcoming Unesco proposals for Israeli-Palestinian academic cooperation – a code of ethics for all academics in the region. Boycotts spawn boycotts. One US foundation has already decided to refuse applications from British researchers into brain cancer.

The resolution suggests that criticism of Israel can never be construed as anti-semitic. Quite a few Jewish students would argue differently, and suggest that some who genuinely oppose Israeli government policy nevertheless employ time-honoured anti-Jewish stereotypes. There is a fear that what begins with the delegitimisation of the state will end with the delegitimisation of the people.

The resolution’s proponents are, of course, not anti-semites, but they are incredibly ignorant about Jewish history. Despite being on the political left, they would, for example, be horrified to learn about Trotsky’s profound interest in the Jewish experiment in building socialism in Palestine in the 1930s.

Since UCU will probably consult its members in local meetings, will they make space for informed views? Will individuals like myself be excluded from UCU platforms, since my intellectual face doesn’t fit?

My hope has always been that the knowledge gained by my students will somehow prepare the ground for a better future, for peace between the two peoples and an alleviation of Palestinian suffering. The UCU initiative will undermine this and blindly encourage the rejectionists on both sides of this bitter conflict to further their agenda.

Guardian 5 June 2007

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