Palestine: Boycott of Israel Gains New Support

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An international campaign for Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel is growing rapidly.

Outrage at Israel's assault on Lebanon is certain to increase the pace of activity. In Britain university lecturers are spearheading the campaign. In June the national conference of the Natfhe lecturers' union agreed to encourage all members to consider their relations with Israeli universities. There was overwhelming support for a resolution which called for lecturers to break links with universities known to be involved.

This policy is now up for discussion in the newly formed University and College Union (UCU) and will be the subject of fierce debate on scores of campuses. This provides an opportunity for discussion of issues that many partisans of Israel wish to avoid - the continuing seizure of Palestinian land, the extension of the apartheid wall, and the complicity of a host of Israeli universities.

Opponents of the boycott argue that it is based on Israeli "exceptionalism", that Israel alone is being targeted, and that this indicates an anti-Semitic motive among BDS activists. In fact, the call for BDS comes from Palestinians organised through the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). Launched in April 2004, PACBI is supported by some 60 Palestinian trade unions, NGOs, and political and religious organisations. It argues that many Israeli universities have contributed directly to occupation and colonisation, and asks academics to boycott these institutions as one means "to end Israel's occupation, colonisation and system of apartheid".

Despite frantic efforts by Israel's supporters, the boycott movement is drawing wide support. French universities have appealed to the European Union not to maintain its "association agreement" with Israel, while student and staff groups at US universities have launched campaigns for divestment, and religious institutions in Sweden, South Africa, the US and Britain have begun disinvestment action. In May the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) launched a major BDS initiative that has been supported by Cosatu, South Africa's main trade union federation.

Cosatu president Willie Madisha has called for a general boycott of Israel, and asked supermarket workers to refuse to handle Israeli goods. Madisha urged the South African government to emulate President Chavez of Venezuela, who has withdrawn his country's ambassador to Israel as a mark of indignation over the assault on Lebanon.

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BDS is taking new forms. In August the Edinburgh Festival cancelled sponsorship from the Israeli embassy in London. At the request of Palestinian filmmakers, a number of internationally acclaimed directors, including Ken Loach, have refused to participate in the forthcoming Haifa film festival, and the governing body of the Greek film industry has withdrawn all Greek films from the event. In Ireland trade unionists recently forced transport company Connex to abandon plans to train Israeli tram drivers in Dublin. Connex had just won a contract to operate a light rail system between illegal Israeli settlements near Jerusalem.

In Britain the main battleground will be on the campuses. Experience so far shows that it is essential to debate fully all the issues associated with the boycott before moving to a vote in UCU branches. Opponents of the boycott often argue that BDS violates principles of academic freedom. The claim is hypocritical and based on the premise that only Israeli academic freedom counts. It ignores the fact that Israeli academic institutions themselves collude in their government's grave violations of Palestinian human and political rights - including the right to education.

Open debate also provides an opportunity to counter allegations of anti-Semitism made against BDS campaigners. This charge, observes PACBI, is "mendaciously being used merely to stifle opposition to Israel's illegal occupation. The call for a boycott is categorically not directed against Jews, or even Israelis as Jews - rather, it targets Israel's oppression and racism with no consideration to ethnicity or religion."

Jewish academics such as Steven Rose, Jonathan Rosenhead and Haim Bresheeth are prominent in the British Committee for Universities of Palestine, which is leading the boycott campaign. Jewish speakers have played a key role in debates with the main anti-boycott group, Engage.

Actions in support of BDS are best taken together with the establishment of direct links with Palestinian institutions, including twinning of schools, colleges and universities. Israel wishes to isolate the Palestinians. We must aim to integrate them into a wider network of solidarity.

Phil Marfleet is the branch secretary of UCU at the University of East London. For more information visit www.pacbi.org and www.bricup.org.uk.