ISRAEL: University heads condemn Ariel boycott call

The chair of the Committee of University Presidents has spoken out against a petition signed by 155 Israeli university and college faculty members over the past few weeks calling for an "academic boycott of the Ariel University Centre" in the West Bank. Professor Rivka Carmi (pictured), who is also the president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), said: "We are totally against academic boycotts."

She said: "We condemn boycotts wherever and whenever - by out-of-Israel institutions, by Israeli institutions, against Israeli or non-Israeli institutions, by organisations, by individuals. We don't think that there are different kinds of boycott. A boycott is a boycott, and we are against it."

What was originally a college in the West Bank town of Ariel sparked off controversy early last year when it was denied accreditation as a university by Israel's Council for Higher Education but was upgraded from a college to a 'university centre' by the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria, which has jurisdiction over the institution. The university centre has 8,500 students representing the full spectrum of Israeli society.

The Israeli lecturers who signed the petition stated their "unwillingness" to take part in any type of academic activity in the college operating in the settlement of Ariel. They argued that Ariel was an illegal settlement and could prevent Israeli citizens ever having the chance to live in peace.

Among the 155 signatories were three Israel Prize laureates - professors Yehoshua Kolodny of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Benjamin Isaac of Tel Aviv University and Itamar Procaccia of the Weizmann Institute of Science.

They said: "We, academics from a variety of fields and from all the institutions of higher learning in Israel, herein express publicly our opposition to the continued occupation and the establishment of settlements. Ariel was built on occupied land. Only a few kilometres away from flourishing Ariel, Palestinians live in villages and refugee camps under unbearably harsh conditions and without basic human rights. Not only do they not have access to higher education, some do not even have running water. These are two different realities that create a policy of apartheid."

Professor Nissim Calderon, a lecturer at an Israeli university, who believes in a two-state solution, said: "We are not going to take part in any academic activity in the occupied territories, because academic activity, like artistic activity, is accepted as normalcy, as normal life."

In contrast to intensified calls from the international community for a boycott of Israeli universities, Calderon advocates the local boycott of institutions functioning in the West Bank.

"Israel is not an apartheid government - the whole mechanics, laws, flag. We want people to understand that we are against the occupation, not apartheid...I am for all boycotts against civilian activity in the occupied territories, including not buying products, artistic and academic," he said.

However, Carmi criticised the "convoluted thinking" among the academics who signed the petition believing that "if the universities outside Israel see that Israelis are against the activities in the West Bank, they will join us".

She said: "You can be against the occupation in the territories, but a boycott is totally unacceptable. Of the 800 faculty at BGU, 20 signed [the petition] - a vocal minority."

What started as a reaction to the article in the Los Angeles Times in 2009 by Neve Gordon, a lecturer in the politics and government department at BGU, stating that he favoured a boycott of Israel, continued last year with threats by the right-wing political group, Im Tirtzu ('If you will it') to incite an international boycott against the university, if staff and curriculum changes were not made.

These events stimulated the need for BGU to take some kind of a stand, to set some limits for lecturers expressing personal opinions when using their university affiliation.

The university's ethics committee has subsequently issued a document in an attempt to "draw a line between academic freedom and the responsibility of a faculty member [of the university]", according to Carmi. This document encourages the faculty of the university to express their opinions freely, but independently and not associated with the university.

"We have been under attack for a long time - after the article by Neve Gordon in the Los Angeles Times. Without hampering freedom of speech, I asked myself, how can I do something to put a framework/some kind of boundaries."