Efforts by academic groups to impose boycotts and other kinds of punitive measures on Israeli universities have gotten considerable attention lately. However, an opposite phenomenon has escaped notice: the widespread participation by mainstream universities in programs and collaborations with institutions located in occupied territories.
This may surprise those who recall that Israel’s establishment of Ariel University in the West Bank drew earnest condemnation from academics and even foreign ministries around the world. Yet it turns out that Ariel is not the only graduate-level institution established in what much of the international community considers occupied territory. And the others have gotten a very different reception.
Turkey has established 10 universities and many colleges in Northern Cyprus since seizing the territory in an invasion in 1974. Half of the universities are public, state-run institutions, and several are campuses of major Turkish institutions on the mainland. Some of the universities were established in just the past few years.
The United Nations Security Council, the European Court of Human Rights, and most of the international community have condemned the Turkish takeover of one third of the island of Cyprus. As of this writing, no nation other than Turkey recognizes the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” regime by which Ankara controls the territory. Turkey maintains a major settlement program, and settlers from the mainland now account for half or more of the population of the TRNC.
Yet surprisingly, universities in Northern Cyprus have won wide cooperation from institutions and academics elsewhere. Indeed, the growing effort to boycott Israeli institutions often coincides with a welcoming embrace of universities not just in the lands of occupying powers (like Turkey and Russia) but also established in the territories those countries occupy.
A telling example involves a conference this fall at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London. Professors from Ariel University were barred from mentioning their professional affiliations as a condition of participating, and instead were asked to come as independent scholars not representing Ariel—a deal that they refused. The conference organizers said they could not be seen as “recognizing” Ariel. The incident was incoherent on its own terms. One might think that Ariel is problematic and illegitimate—but there is no denying that it exists, and that it employs the scholars in question. Ironically, the conference was about Israel studies: Would scholarly papers about the Israeli presence in the West Bank that refer to Ariel U have to leave its name blank?
The exclusion of Ariel University from the SOAS conference stands in sharp contrast to the school’s policies regarding interactions with schools in other occupied territories. SOAS once provided a special undergraduate course at the European University of Lefke, one of the universities established by occupation authorities in Northern Cyprus. More recently, SOAS has had speakers from “Abkhazian state” institutions, an unrecognized de facto arm of Russia’s occupation government in part of Georgia. Similarly, SOAS has held events with speakers from Turkish universities that have branches in occupied Cyprus. All of those affiliations were openly acknowledged.
These dalliances are par for the course for European institutions. British institutions are particularly active in Northern Cyprus, because of Britain’s history with the island. The University of Warwick, for example, has an “official overseas center” for master’s programs at Eastern Mediterranean University. The University of Wolverhampton and University of Sunderland have joint degree programs with Cyprus International University, in the occupied part of the divided city of Nicosia. The European University of Lefke has several partnerships with British institutions. While they stand out, French, Italian, and Spanish institutions also have numerous ties. And one Northern Cypriot institution even opened a program in Washington.
Those are just the direct, institutional relationships. In addition, many faculty members of universities in Northern Cyprus are invited to lecture at foreign universities or publish in foreign scholarly journals. Similarly, academics from elsewhere in Europe attend conferences in Northern Cyprus.
These relationships have taken on added meaning because the universities are a core aspect of the Turkish occupation regime on the island. Turkey has aggressively developed higher education in the territory as a magnet for both settlers and foreign money. The schools attract tens of thousands of settlers/students from the Turkish mainland, and they cater heavily to international students by offering classes in English. Indeed, education has become one of the bulwarks of the TRNC economy, according to a New York Timesarticle this year. The universities boast an enrollment of 63,000 students in a territory with a population of only 300,000.
The Republic of Cyprus strenuously protests the operation of these universities. Cyprus claims that the universities are illegally established, often on private property belonging to Greek Cypriot refugees, and argues that any accreditation, degree recognition, or other dealings with them by the international academic community violates international law. But these calls by the legitimate government of a Western democracy to abjure dealings with the occupation academies fall on deaf ears in academe—while calls to boycott not just Ariel but all Israeli institutions find a growing number of supporters.
Another striking example of this incongruity occurred last year, when many European academics signed a letter to the European Union official Catherine Ashton supporting the European Commission’s restriction of funds to institutions across the Green Line (a common name for Israel’s 1949 armistice line with Jordan). Many of the signatories teach at universities that themselves have relationships across the other Green Line, as Cyprus’s de facto partition border is known.
The wide acceptance of relationships with mainland Turkish and even TRNC institutions suggests that academic boycotts of Israel cannot be reduced to principled opposition to occupation regimes or dutiful execution of international law.
Yet the attitude of international academics to TRNC schools is, in fact, the right one. Knowledge does not know creeds or boundaries.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Cypriot conflict, cooperation among institutions of learning should not be obstructed, just as in former centuries, even countries at war maintained academic exchanges. European institutions are right to not boycott universities in Northern Cyprus. But advocating boycotts of Israeli institutions without an awareness of the broad academic cooperation with institutions in Turkish and other occupied territories is hypocritical and dishonest.
Eugene Kontorovich is a professor at the Northwestern University School of Law.