Thursday, June 14, 2007

Double standards over Israel boycott

The denial of education, of work, of any possibility of a future lies behind the communal fighting raging in Gaza today. The Israeli, US and British governments are guilty of fomenting these tragic events by refusing to recognise the democratically-elected Hamas government, cutting off vital aid to the Palestinian territories, while funding and arming rival Fatah forces. To criticise the Israeli government, however, is to risk bringing down the wrath of Zionism on your head, as the University and College Union (UCU) has found out. UCU members at their conference last month, instructed their (unwilling) leaders to circulate a call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions to UK universities and colleges. Dr Sue Blackwell, a linguistics lecturer at the University of Birmingham, is a key supporter of the resolution, and told the conference: "We have voted to discuss how best to help our Palestinian brothers and sisters who often are not allowed to get to college or university and that is what we will do."

Timed to coincide with the UCU resolution, four Israeli university presidents and a number of prominent authors including Amos Oz and David Grossman, called on their government to lift all restrictions on Palestinian students. Palestinian students in Gaza are banned from travelling to universities on the West Bank. The Birzeit university is calling for a worldwide campaign to "break the siege" of education. The university is battling to survive under pressure of the occupation. It usually receives $1.5m a year from the Palestinian Authority. But since the economic blockade of Palestine that followed the election of the Hamas government, they have received just barely a fifth of that. Staff go unpaid and courses are suffering. Some 3,000 students have not been able to pay their fees – 43% of the student body.

Since the UCU conference, Zionists have launched a vicious campaign against Dr Blackwell and her supporters, hurling the ludicrous charge of anti-Semitism at them. As a linguistics professor Dr Blackwell will no doubt be struck by the astonishing double standards around the phrase "academic freedom". Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor, has been recruited to a legal campaign by British lawyer Anthony Julius against any boycott. Dershowitz says that if the union goes ahead with this "immoral petition", it will "destroy British academia" and warns he has recruited "100 lawyers to break the boycott". Julius claims that British Jews are appalled by the UCU decision and believe there are "double standards when it comes to Israel". What about double standards when it comes to Palestinian academic freedom? Not an issue for him and his 100 lawyers, clearly. And what about double standards when it comes to the academic freedom of Jews who do not support his position. Julius must know that Dershowitz has successfully orchestrated a campaign to have an American Jewish academic Norman Finkelstein sacked from his post at De Paul university in Chicago. Finkelstein was subjected to a vicious campaign to prevent him being offered tenure, The reasons are simple. His books, including The Holocaust Industry and Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, have shown how the accusation of anti-Semitism is used to prevent any criticism of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. Finkelstein, the son of Holocaust survivors, has condemned the decision to deny him tenure as an act of political aggression. He had the support of his own department, but the De Paul board caved in under external pressure. He will lose his job at the end of the academic year but says: "They can deny me tenure, deny me the right to teach. But they will never stop me from saying what I believe."

Penny Cole

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