The recently introduced boycott of two Israeli universities by the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) targets illegal Israeli state practices and human rights violations condoned, supported or initiated by those universities and their employees. Academic freedom, freedom of opinion, and freedom of expression are hindered and restricted by the boycott to a far lesser extent than these rights are hindered, restricted and trampled upon by the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. The boycott will not kill or imprison Israeli university teachers and students. The state of Israel kills and imprisons Palestinian teachers and students. The boycott does not lead to the cancellation of classes, courses or entire education programs and curricula, unlike Israeli state measures vis-à-vis Palestinian universities.
Meanwhile, powerful right-wing and Zionist forces, such as Campus Watch, AIPAC, MEMRI, WINEP, ZOA, CAMERA, Alan Dershowitz, Daniel Pipes, and other neo-Orwellian phenomena, are attempting to silence even hints of criticism of the state of Israel on campuses in North America by means of intimidation, black-listing and systematic disinformation.
The AUT boycott is therefore a much-needed strategy, a pro-active, yet non-violent, means to improve a disastrous human rights situation, which has been brought about and exacerbated by oppressive actions of the state of Israel and many of its agencies, allies and dependants, including those two universities.
By supporting the illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory through the establishment of a college in the Ariel settlement, Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University has made itself guilty of a serious breach of international law. By effectively prohibiting research into Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians, Haifa University has itself transgressed against academic and other freedoms.
Since the boycott came into force, the stakes have been raised. In an apparent response to the boycott, Israel has upgraded the Ariel ‘College of Judea and Samaria' to university status. Notwithstanding the arrogance of this move, it now extends the boycott to three targets, with Jerusalem's Hebrew University first on the waiting list, pending the outcome of its land dispute against a Palestinian family.
In keeping the strategy flexible, the AUT has wisely learned from previous boycotting blunders, such as the blanket cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa, which targeted South African anti-apartheid artists by mistake. Ilan Pappé, a courageous Haifa professor who supports the boycott, will be exempt, as will any other "conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state's colonial and racist policies".
Critics have assailed the AUT for not boycotting the United States or its own country for their invasion and occupation of Iraq. But the crucial difference is that while British university teachers vocally opposed the Iraqi misadventure of their own government, Israeli academics have by and large remained silent in the face of atrocities against Palestinian academic life. They have also by and large opposed boycott initiatives.
The showdown has begun, and it promises to be a formidable conflict between the brains of the British academic community, which will need to be followed and joined soon by others committed to non-violent conflict resolution and justice, against the brawn of the illegal Israeli occupation. And since the United Nations and other international authorities have failed to raise a finger against the outrageous support for Israel's illegal occupation and grave human rights violations by most of the Israeli academic community, MIFTAH calls for further support from transnational civil society and for a widening of the boycott.