closures add fuel to boycott campaign
January 17, 2003
Academic boycott advocates said today that the closure of two Palestinian
universities would add weight to their calls to sever links with
In the early hours of yesterday Israeli troops issued closure orders
to two academic institutions, the Hebron University and Palestinian
Polytechnic University, also in Hebron.
Israeli ministers said that the closures were part of a response
to last week's suicide bomb attacks in Tel Aviv. They say that chemistry
and computer labs at the universities were being used to research
and train terrorists to build bombs.
Palestinian supporters of the university called the closures a
The debate over an academic boycott of Israel has been dividing
academic communities in the UK and abroad since Mona Baker, a linguist
at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology,
sacked two Israeli academics from the board of a small journal.
Academics are divided over whether it is ever worth compromising
academic work because of a political situation and, if so, whether
the Israeli government's actions are dire enough to warrant this
Colwyn Williamson, secretary of the Campaign for Academic Freedom
and Standards, which supports the boycott, said that the closure
of the universities would force a lot of academics to reconsider
"Presumably it will put pressure on Natfhe to play a more
active role in promoting its policy of severing links, and on the
Association of University Teachers (AUT) to highlight its moratorium
on funding for Israeli universities. They have the policies but
have been inactive in implementing them," he said.
"We don't know whether the facilities are being used for terroristic
activities. I imagine that the universities, like elsewhere, are
hotbeds of political opinion - that is the nature of universities.
But it is no justification for closing them down and it is going
to be regarded as outrageous by a lot of academics."
However, opponents of a boycott said that the closures would not
change their view. Susan Bassnett, pro-vice-chancellor at the University
of Warwick, said: "I'm not in favour of academic boycotts.
I think that they are very risky. Unless there is wholehearted consistent
support, I think it risks targeting individuals, I am totally opposed
to that because it is basically Stalinist.
"Obviously one deplores the shutting of a university, but
I don't see what good a boycott against individuals can have where
those individuals themselves could be totally against the closures
also," she said.
Sue Blackwell, a lecturer in English at Birmingham university,
who has been campaigning for the boycott, said: "The pressure
will be on AUT and Natfhe to pass stronger motions. This will certainly
add fuel to the arguments for an academic boycott. There's widespread
sympathy for the staff at the universities. It might be grounds
for investigating the chemistry lab, but not shutting down the universities.
I think there will be widespread condemnation among the academic
community about this."
She said that she was putting together a motion to put to the AUT
for all members to join the boycott.
But a statement from Paul Cottrell, assistant general secretary
of the AUT, fell short of any further action: "The forced closure
of Palestinian universities by Israel is a barbaric act which will
be condemned by all those who believe in freedom of thought, democracy
and the fundamental value of education. It will alienate many Palestinians
who are campaigning for a peaceful solution to the present conflict
and serve to further isolate Israel from the international academic
The AUT was also a signatory to a motion by the European Higher
Education Committee - part of the international coalition of education
unions, Education International, which represents 26 million teaching
staff worldwide - last weekend that condemned the suicide bombings
and the closure of any universities in the occupied territories.
The committees current policy is to call for a moratorium on European
funding of Israeli research institutions until Israel "abides
by UN resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the