by Polly Curtis | The Guardian | 22 April 2005
The woman behind a divisive vote today to boycott Israeli universities has brushed aside criticism of the proposals, saying it is impossible to treat that country's academics as "normal citizens from a normal state".
Sue Blackwell, a Birmingham lecturer, who is launching her second attempt to secure a national boycott of Israeli academia, said that, if successful, the move would increase the pressure on the "illegitimate state of Israel". She accused the country's universities of being complicit in the alleged abuse of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
The proposal, due to be heard at the Association of University Teachers' conference in Eastbourne today, has already sparked a heated international debate. This week more than 250 leading academics voiced their concerns in the Guardian, claiming that there should be a "free flow of ideas" between universities, unfettered by politics.
But the boycott campaign received a boost today when the Palestinian Authority said that it was supporting the motion. Ghassan Khatib, the minister for planning, told the Guardian: "Academics of the world should hold Israeli academics responsible for the deeds of their government, and maybe this might waken consciousness within them."
But it has emerged that academics who carry out the boycott could be in breach of their universities' equal opportunities regulations.
AUT members will be asked to decide on four motions. The first, and least contentious, backs the circulation of information about the boycott to the union's branches. The three more controversial motions advocate boycotts of Haifa University, Bar Ilans and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for alleged complicity with the government's policies for the Palestinian territories, and over accusations that academics have been penalised for speaking out against the state. All three universities deny the allegations.
Speaking to the Guardian, Ms Blackwell said it was essential that academics took a stand against an "apartheid state." "There is this great wall of silence, great complicity, about what is happening," she said. "On one hand they are not saying anything about the occupation and on the other they expect it to be business as usual; they expect to be treated as normal citizens from a normal state.
"They expect to come to international conferences and the boycott campaign is about saying no, you can't have your cake and eat it."
She said those who objected to the proposed boycott did not understand "the extent to which Israeli academics are routinely implicated in racist discourses against Arab students and Arabs in general".
"You cannot talk about academic freedom and free debate in Israel in the same way you can talk about it in the UK or in almost any other country in the world. It is poisoned by the occupation. It is corrupted by it. There is no academic freedom...Those people who do stick their head above the parapet and speak out are subject to witch-hunts and victimisation."
Ms Blackwell also rounded on critics who say that UK academics should be building bridges with liberals on Israeli campuses. She said that there were only a few Israeli acade mics who took a stand against the government's policies.
Some critics accused those behind the boycott of trying to undermine the state of Israel.
But even if today's motions are passed, Steve Miller, deputy vice-chancellor of City University in London, said there could be problems for any academic who followed the boycott. "I would have thought that any academic treated differently on the ground of race, would be in breach of their university's equal opportunities policy. I believe that for City University treating an Israeli academic differently on the grounds of their nationality would be in breach of our policy."
The legal precedent is unclear. In 2003 Andrew Wilkie was suspended without pay for two months from his post at Oxford University and made to take equal opportunities training after rejecting an application from an Israeli student because he had a "huge problem" with Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
Mona Baker, a linguist who in 2002 sacked two Israelis from the board of a journal she edited, was cleared of any wrongdoing after an official inquiry by the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.
A spokesperson for the AUT refused to comment.
Last night Ms Blackwell said she would not give up even if the motion was defeated. "Whatever happens, there's been a really good debate and we've got it on the agenda."