JERUSALEM – At a time when Western nations are imposing economic sanctions against the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government, a group of British academics has decided to throw their political support behind the Palestinians.
The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) – the largest union of British university and college lecturers – voted on Monday to impose an academic boycott against their Israeli colleagues unless the Israeli academics denounce Israel’s policy in the West Bank.
NATFHE, with 67,000 members, serves England, Wales and Northern Ireland. A boycott by its members could affect the publication of scholarly papers, among other things.
The resolution referred to the “continuing Israeli apartheid policies,” including construction of an “exclusion wall” and “discriminatory educational practices.” It encouraged members to “consider the appropriateness of a boycott of those that do not publicly dissociate themselves from such policies.”
Some Palestinian academics welcomed the boycott.
In a letter to the British-based Guardian Unlimited, representatives from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and the Union of Al-Quds University Teachers praised the idea of sanctions and boycotts as “morally and politically sound tactics, which, in the past, succeeded in bringing down the apartheid regime in South Africa.”
But the resolution has generated strong reaction both in the U.S. and Israel among academics as well as Jewish groups, who say that not only does it smack of anti-Semitism but it will have a negative effect on academic freedom.
“It’s a very disappointing resolution,” said Prof. Zvi Zigler, chairman of the Inter-Senate Committee for the Protection of Academic Independence in a telephone interview.
“It will cause damage to the scientific exchange. It’s a mixture of politics and scientific research,” Zigler said.
Zigler said that although his group was unsuccessful in stopping the boycott it still hopes to de-legitimize it.
It may also be discriminatory, Zigler said, since academics from every country in the world, including Iran, would be judged on their academic merits except for Israelis, who would be judged first on their politics and then on their academic merits.
The U.S. National Academies also opposed the boycott.
“We are adamantly opposed to scientific boycotts,” Bill Skane of the National Academies wrote in an email reply to Cybercast News Service.
“We call upon the members of the world scientific community – many of whom we know share our concern – to actively support scientific exchanges, collaborations, and education as a wise and humane investment for peace in the future,” Skane said.
In a statement, the U.S.-based group Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) condemned the boycott. The group had submitted a petition to NATFHE with more than 5,000 signatures opposing the sanctions prior to the vote.
The boycott is “an affront to the very basic principles of academic freedom and results in confounding and hindering progress towards peace,” said SPME President, Edward S. Beck.
SPME describes itself as an international grassroots group who seek to promote academic integrity, excellence and honest debate resulting in an “Israel within safe and secure borders at peace…and recognizing the legitimate peaceful aspirations of her neighbors.”
Beck said the action provided “a political litmus test for individual scholars” which, “is hauntingly reminiscent of McCarthyism which is rooted not in progressive peaceful ideals, but in bigoted, maladaptive and xenophobic attitudes.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said that Israel found the boycott “troubling” but shied away from calling it anti-Semitic.
“Israel has a strong and vibrant democracy. We have a separation of powers. We have an independent judiciary. We have freedom of the press. There is total and complete academic freedom,” said Regev.
“When a group like this singles out the Jewish State for special treatment and calls for a boycott [without calling for a boycott] of Syria, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, we have to raise questions about their motivation,” he said.
“If this is what the intellectual elite of Britain thinks, obviously they don’t have a clue about the realities of the Middle East,” said Dr. Ephraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Weisenthal Center in Jerusalem.
“This is a counter-productive step [that] will not in any way facilitate a constructive solution of the problems in the Middle East,” Zuroff said by telephone.
Zuroff said the move stems from anti-Semitism. He pointed to the absence of any boycotts against Sudan where genocide is occurring or against China because of its Tibetan policies.
Anti-Defamation League, National Director Abraham Foxman said that the ADL had submitted a petition to NATFHE prior to the vote carrying more than 12,000 signatures. He called the boycott a “stunning setback for academic freedom.”
NATFHE is due to merge in a few days with Britain’s older but smaller Association of University Teachers, another academic union. It is not clear how the NATFHE boycott will be received by the new union.