On Sunday, December 5, 2004, a large audience packed the lecture theatre of the Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies for âResisting Israeli Apartheid: Strategies and Principles.â The all-day conference offered strategies for countering the Israeli occupation and Israeli Apartheid policies.
The speakers were largely academics from the U.K., the U.S., South Africa, Israel, and Australia, with two featured speakers from Palestine. While the main focus was on the need for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, the issues of economic boycott and divestment were also raised. The speakers stressed the extreme urgency of the situation facing Palestine.
The two main Palestinian speakersâLisa Taraki, associate professor of sociology at Birzeit University, and Omar Barghouti, writer, choreographer and doctoral student at Tel Aviv Universityâpresented the case for an academic boycott of Israel with great power and lucidity. The official Palestinian call for boycott, launched in April 2004, is backed by all the major academic, cultural and professional bodies and trade union organisations in the Occupied Territories (see https://right2edu.birzeit.edu/news/printer178).
Dr. Taraki stressed the role played by most Israeli academics and institutions in supporting the racist and oppressive nature of the Israeli state, and warned against legitimising the Israeli academy by making financial support for Palestinians conditional on joint projects. In discussion, she extended a warm welcome to British students to visit Birzeit and other West Bank universities, for either short visits or study programs, to get a better understanding of the situation in which Palestinian students find themselves.
Omar Barghouti pointed out that even leftist âprogressivesâ within the Israeli academy are generally opposed to the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and rarely protest that Palestinians living inside the Green Line like himself are excluded from full citizenship as non-Jews. He stressed the universal moral nature of the issues at stake, and questioned the principle of âexceptionalismâ which Israel uses to justify its policies to the world.
Victoria Brittain, introducing the keynote speaker, Oxford University professor and poet Tom Paulin, recalled some of the similarities with the campaign against Apartheid in South Africaâthe government apathy, the media bias, the dark days faced by the ANC when their leadership was jailed, murdered or exiled. She stressed the crucial role played in that struggle by grassroots activists across the worldâa theme taken up by a number of other speakers, including Karma Nabulsi from Oxford and Ron Press from South Africa.
Professor Paulin reminded the audience that the boycott of South African goods started in Ireland, whose colonial experience created a special empathy between the two peoples. He also talked about the need to use not just the intellect but also the creative imagination, to represent the Palestinian experience through music, theatre, film, poetry and novels: where, he asked, is the Palestinian Battle of Algiers?
Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, from the University of Haifa, was totally supportive of the boycott (deploringâand explainingâthe lack of support it has had among his colleagues). He stressed the importance of the international community elaborating a concerted effortâideally with clear guidance from the Palestinian leadership.
Mona Baker, of Manchester University, laid down clear guiding principles for the boycott, focussing on undermining academic institutions as organs of the state. She asked why Israeli academics should expect treatment different from that of equally âinnocentâ Israeli workers, who would be affected by a successful economic boycott.
From the floor, a number of people suggested other areas of boycott, notably of professional bodies and individuals who participate in or condone illegal acts, such as architects and lawyers.
Lewis Davidson, recalling the importance of divestment in the anti-Apartheid campaign, had encouraging news to report, of the growing call for divestment in U.S. universities, and of the pressure building against Caterpillar. The courageous stand of the Presbyterian Church, to initiate a process of divestment from some of its multi-billion dollar holdings in Israeli companies, has sparked a hysterical Zionist reaction and threats of legal action. This, Davidson pointed out, would provide great publicity.
Betty Hunter of the Palestine Solidarity Committee spoke of the very practical steps individuals and groups can take to bring economic pressure to bear, from targeting supermarkets to raising questions at AGMs of U.K.-based companies trading with Israel. While it takes time for any economic impact to be felt, the boycott campaign is an excellent way of educating and raising the awareness of the general public. At the governmental and European levels, she said, there is a need to lobby hard to halt the thriving arms trade with Israel, and to get the EUâs preferential trade agreement suspended. She suggested that Caterpillar could become a focus for the whole boycott campaign, just as Barclays Bank was symbolic in the anti-Apartheid movement.
Hilary Rose, who with her husband Stephen has just launched the British Committee for Universities for Palestine (see www.bricup.org.uk), felt optimistic that the Palestinian call for boycott will give the whole campaign great impetus; a number of French universities (run by independent academics rather than managers) have already joined.
For more information on the U.K. academic boycott campaign and full texts of the contributions to the conference, please see www.bricup.org.uk