Sunday, September 30, 2007

Freedom is not an academic question

BRADFORD student Khaled, 22, one of hundreds
prevented from leaving Gaza under Israeli siege.

LEADERS of the British academics' union, the Universities and Colleges Union(UCU) have reportedly decided to dump the union's resolution calling for a discussion on academic links with Israel, after taking advice from their lawyers that a boycott would be illegal, under laws against discrimination.

It is being reported as a climbdown by the academics, and hailed as a triumph for freedom.

It is neither. UCU leader Sally Hunt made it clear from the start that she disagreed with the "boycott Israel" resolution. Although it was passed by union conference, one looked in vain for the resolution on UCU's website,. Its opponents within and outside the union were thus allowed free rein to denounce it and campaign against it in the media -which also kept what the resolution actually said a mystery, shrouded in distortion. Tony Blair joined Israeli ministers in denouncing it. American academia's witchfinder general, Professor Alan Dershowitz found time from campaigning to oust anti-Zionists from their jobs (as witness Norman Finkelstein) to threaten costly legal action that would bankrupt the British union. All in the name of freedom, naturally.

The line peddled by pro-Zionists like David Hirsh of 'Engage' was that the UCU resolution meant banning Israelis from campus. Bit odd as several of the boycott supporters happen to be Israelis. But Hirsh and others have carried on with their invention after it was pointed out that the resolution only asked for a discussion about boycott, and if adopted this would be aimed against institutions, not individuals because of their nationality. Plainly today's Zionist propagandists believe that if you want to defend Israeli repression nothing beats pretending you are the victims of persecution; and as cynical old journalists used to say, "Why let the truth spoil a good story?".

We don't know what Sally Hunt and co. asked the lawyers, but the answer they got, referring to discrimination laws, makes one ask whether it gave the impression that individuals were to be boycotted. How else could a boycott be illegal? If I decide not to pick up an Israeli orange, as my Mum was once proud to reject South African fruit, will I risk being prosecuted? If a British university lecturer or scientist consulted his or her conscience (as the UCU resolution put it) before accepting an invitation to an Israeli-government backed conference, say, will they be compelled to go for fear of being accused of illegal boycotting?

There might be a danger to unions like my own if members decided not to handle Israeli goods or service Israeli planes, say. That is under Tory anti-union laws which Labour to its shame has kept, to prevent workers taking effective solidarity action, as seen during the Gate Gourmet dispute at Heathrow. I have pointed this out in meetings discussing solidarity with Palestine, but people seemed reluctant to talk about the matter. Which is one reason I have my doubts about how serious some of the campaigners are. (Ironically, it was Israel's Histadrut that was able to threaten to "black" British goods at the ports in retaliation for British union resolutions. How embarrassing!)

But meantime, before any action is taken let alone threatened with reaction, the UCU leadership has said that in view of the lawyers' advice it will not go ahead with a discussion in the union about boycotting, or a lecture tour of the colleges that would help inform members of the issues. Now, how is that for an example of academic debate or a victory for "freedom of speech"? Well, that's what Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni calls it, so how dare we argue?!

It appears some of the Left in the academic world have already been thrown into panicky retreat by this not unexpected setback, although a piece of lawyers' advice is hardly mass democracy in action. The Socialist Workers Party has been fanatically pro-boycott, to the point of stupidity. Members in the cultural line were advised not to perform or have their work translated for Israeli consumption, as though the Israeli military would collapse if soldiers could not read China Mieville's science fiction. This self-denying ordinance certainly beats waiting for a right-wing regime to ban you or your work as subversive to order! But last week leading SWP theoretician Alex Callenicos signalled the retreat even before the lawyers' advice was reported (he warned Sally Hunt was going to rush through a debate, and the Left could fall into a trap).

"We should make it clear now that we do not intend to propose an actual boycott of any Israeli academic institutions at the next union congress".

Callenicos says the boycott issue is divisive, and members should concentrate on raising the Palestine issue generally and asking boycott opponents what they are doing to help Palestinian students. Maybe they will ask SWPers the same.

But meanwhile here are some positive issues that people should be able to take up if they want to do something for academic freedom, and Palestine.

Here's an item from the Bradford Telegraph and Argus,
Wednesday September 26 :

Student trapped in siege of Gaza

A Bradford student is trapped in the Gaza Strip after the Israeli government laid siege to the territory. The 22-year-old has completed two years of a business management degree at the University of Bradford but can't return to finish his studies because of the blockade.
The Israelis have branded Gaza hostile territory and are preventing all movement in or out. Water, electricity and fuel supplies have been cut and there are growing fears the area could be invaded.
Now Khaled al-Mudallal, a Gaza native who is living in Great Horton, is to make a desperate plea to the Israeli Supreme Court to be allowed to resume his studies.
His case has been taken up by a human rights organisation and the University says it hopes his situation can be resolved "quickly and peacefully." Khaled had returned to Gaza to be with his wife, Duaa, when he became caught up in the political situation.
Speaking to the Telegraph & Argus from Rafah, he said: "I was supposed to start my third year this week, I am already missing my studies. I am being denied my human rights. I came back for a few days to collect my wife and I have been stuck here for three and a half months.
"Nothing can get in or out of Gaza. The Israelis have cut the water, electricity and fuel supplies and we fear they may invade any day now as they have threatened to do.
"The situation here in Gaza is very bad. It has been bad before but now they have closed the Rafah border it is impossible to leave. Every aspect of life has been affected here - aid, food, power.
"It is very difficult, I am renting a house in Great Horton and paying bills there but also have to rent a house in Rafah.
"I have no work here and I am worried I will lose my part-time job in Bradford as a result of being stuck here. That is my main source of income.
"The university has said it understands my situation but if I do not get back soon I could lose a whole year's work."
Professor Mark Cleary, vice-chancellor of the University of Bradford said: "This is clearly a very frustrating situation for Khaled and many other students like him.
"We hope it is resolved quickly and peacefully". newsindex/display.var.1714331.0.

The National Union of Students Black Students Campaign has joined Bradford University Student Union and others in a call to "Support Khaled al-Mudallal's Right to Education". Israeli human rights campaigners backing his plea to the Israeli Supreme Court say he is one of several hundred Palestinian students who are being prevented from leaving Gaza to return to courses abroad. They believe this is in breach of international law.

The University and Colleges Union has added its support, as has the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Islamic students. You can visit the website and sign the online petition here.

Campaigners are also urging letters to Gordon Brown, and asking supporters to raise the issue in student media etc. It is not a matter of asking for an exception, though Khaled's claim to justice and his right to education are clear. Showing how illegal occupation, oppression and siege hits one person just like themselves is a good way of getting people to face reality and understand what it's all about.

Books without Borders

Second, there's a call from Faculty for Israel-Palestinian Peace, which notes with dismay the effects of occupation on academic freedom in Palestine: "Universities have been closed for prolonged periods, students often unable to reach their studies because of delays or closure of checkpoints, or denied the right to travel to their universities at all. This has affected medical and physiotherapy students in Gaza in particular where no local courses are available and travel to the West Bank banned.. .

"Palestinian universities generally are starved of resources. In particular there is an acute shortage of books and other materials...."

FFIPP is chaired by Dr.Eyad Sarraj, head of Gaza Community Mental Health Program, and has an impressive international advisory board including Hanan Ashrawi, Zygmunt Bauman, Eric Hogsbawm, Tony Judt and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

It is appealing for money, and for books - especially introductory textbooks and up-to-date scientific, technical and nursing or medical texts, though English as-a -foreign language and IT textbooks are also in demand. It also wants volunteers to act as local agents collecting aid.

UCU offices in London at 27, Brittania Street, WC1 have been loaned as a collecting and sorting centre.

for more info. visit or e-mail

I hope the faculty peace campaigners will consider sending a delegation with its shipment of books; and that it will receive better treatment than the Birmingham delegation that was detained at Ben Gurion airport when taking children's books for Jenin refugee camp. But such obstruction is all the more reason to recognise the importance of positive aid initiatives like this one. And presumably government ministers and others who have had so much to say about academic freedom will be ready to offer their support.

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