British schools back out of boycott

Legal advisors say proposed boycott of Israeli universities is ‘unlawful’

Film studies professor Dorit Naaman says Queen’s should offer more Middle Eastern instruction and engage in more discussion concerning academic freedom.
Film studies professor Dorit Naaman says Queen’s should offer more Middle Eastern instruction and engage in more discussion concerning academic freedom.

A proposed boycott of Israeli universities is unlawful, the British University and College Union (UCU)’s legal advisors told them on Sept. 28.

The union announced a call for debate on cutting academic ties with post-secondary institutions in Israel in May.

Following that announcement, Principal Karen Hitchcock issued a statement on the university’s website in early July saying Queen’s would have no choice but to ask the union to add Queen’s to its boycott list if they pursued their “ill-advised course.”

According to the Guardian, legal advisors told the strategy and finance committee for the union a boycott call could potentially contravene discrimination legislation.

The boycott was also considered to be “outside the aims and objects of the union,” the report said.

The UCU couldn’t be reached for comment.

Queen’s film studies professor Dorit Naaman said the UCU responded to a call for a boycott by Palestinian academics who had asked that funding be given separately, not conditionally, to their universities.

Naaman said that as an Israeli it saddens her that it takes Israeli academics’ fear of being boycotted to expose how little academic freedom Palestinians have had.

She said a boycott is a transparent measure, while what the Israeli state has done to Palestinian academic life is much more insidious.

Since 2000, access to Palestinian universities has been made difficult for students due to zones imposed upon the West Bank by Israel. A series of bypass roads on which Palestinians cannot drive also limit their movement inside the West Bank.

The Israelis have checkpoints monitoring who goes into and comes out of Palestinian universities. Sometimes the gates are closed for hours and people are not allowed to leave.

“The fact is that academics—the universities, the senates, the presiding boards—never came together to say, ‘What is being done in our names as citizens and academics is wrong,’” Naaman said.

The proposal called for disengagement from Israeli institutions as well as divestment from funding. “When I read the UCU proposal, I think it is a measured and reasonable response to what is happening in Israel. My personal worry is that it’s going to be interpreted not as it’s stated,” Naaman said, adding that it’s not a clear-cut situation.

She said the concern with the proposed boycott is that all individuals will be barred from a range of academic activities, rather than institutional structures of funding and collaborations, which is what was intended.

Naaman said there has to be more instruction about the Middle East offered at Queen’s. “There could be, and should be, discussion of what it would mean to engage the world and to engage people in the world that don’t have the same academic freedom. What can we do to help them and to change their plight and situation?”

English professor Margaret Pappano publicly opposed Principal Hitchcock’s statement concerning the boycott.

“I was opposed to her statement, which countenanced and threatened a counter boycott of the UK should they vote to boycott. That’s a violation of university policy,” Pappano said, adding that she also opposed Principal Hitchcock’s unilateral statement.

“It was an important issue and we as a university community should properly conduct debate and find out from a variety of different sources what the issues are,” she said. “I respect Principal Hitchcock’s right to speak out, but I really believe that she should say that this is her opinion and it does not stand for the Queen’s community.”

The precursor to the UCU, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), played an important role in bringing down the apartheid regime in South Africa, Pappano said, so it’s not clear why a different legal issue applies here.

The AUT passed a resolution in 1980 stating its opposition to apartheid and its belief that a boycott on South African universities and academics would be the most effective action. Elia Zureik, professor emeritus in the sociology department, is the author of several studies on the Palestinian refugee issue prepared for United Nations agencies.

Zureik said debate around a boycott was a very good suggestion.

“Palestinian education suffers a great deal, of which the western media does not talk,” he said.

Zureik said it’s interesting the union hasn’t disclosed its rationale for backing out of the boycott, other than saying it would be discriminatory and violate British laws.

“Surely this logic was not applied in the case of South Africa,” Zureik said.

“My guess—and this is just an educated guess—is that the pressure from the Israeli government and through Israeli lobby groups in the UK have been such that … the leadership of the union felt that they must sort of not appear to be against academic reason.

“To a very large extent I would say [the decision] was in response to the reaction on the part of our principal and a very sophisticated lobby mounted by the Israel lobby groups in the US and Canada.”

Zureik will be speaking at a symposium Nov. 7 organized by Ariel Salzmann, who teaches Middle Eastern history at Queen’s. Salzmann said she has also invited Yoaz Peled, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University, to speak.

“I proposed that we have some education as a campus on these issues and bring in some people, and it has become an opportunity for people on campus who are interested in the Middle East to get together and talk about some of these issues,” Salzmann said.

She said the symposium will focus on the 1967 Six-Day War and its impact on the past 40 years of Israeli and Palestinian society. A second symposium, dedicated to academic freedom and freedom of speech, is scheduled for Nov. 14.

The symposia are sponsored by the Principal’s Office.

Oded Haklai, assistant professor in the department of political studies, said he didn’t support the union’s proposed boycott because no one has the right to violate the academic freedom of others. “The call for merely debating a boycott appeared to many like an attempt to bypass the previously encountered legal complications by dressing it up as ‘a debate,’” he said in an e-mail to the Journal.

Haklai said there’s nothing to debate because a debate about a boycott assumes that a decision in favour of a boycott is a legitimate outcome.

“At most, they, and we here at Queens, can hold a debate about the underlying principles that forbid us from violating academic freedom,” he said. “There is no point in debating the individual case of Israel before it is decided that it is acceptable for academics to issue collective punishment, pursue discriminatory policies, and violate the academic freedom of others in order to promote a political agenda.”

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