We will not be silenced (Guardian)


We will not be silenced

The cancellation of the Palestinian academics’ UK speaking tour amounts to censorship and bullying, writes Amjad Barham

Tuesday 2 October 2007 07.39 EDT Last modified on Sunday 10 January 201615.21 EST

Palestinian academics received with dismay, although not entirely with surprise, the decision by the University and College Union (UCU) to cancel their UK speaking tour, during which they had planned to discuss the academic boycott of Israel with colleagues at British universities.
Citing legal advice, the union released a statement saying that “while UCU is at liberty to debate the pros and cons of Israeli policies, it cannot spend members’ resources on seeking to test opinion on something which is in itself unlawful and cannot be implemented”. Debating effective means of countering Israeli colonial policies has thus been declared illegal.

We believe that this ban on debating the Israeli academic boycott has deprived our British colleagues of an opportunity to better inform themselves about an issue that is of concern to conscientious academics and intellectuals the world over. The complicity of the British government, among others, in Israel’s continued military occupation and persistent violation of international law makes it all the more relevant for British civil society, academics included, to rationally deliberate on its moral responsibility in countering injustice.

We are disappointed to see that the leadership of the UCU has failed to defend the right of its members to engage in unfettered discussions on this or any other matter of concern to academics. Open debate, after all, is one of the key foundations of academic freedom, and thus we cannot understand why the door to open consideration of controversial ideas has been so abruptly closed.

Palestinian academic unions will continue to pursue other avenues to make our case heard in the academic community in the UK, and shall not be deterred by the cancellation of the invitation extended to us by the UCU. While we do not have the resources of the Israel lobby in the UK, we do think that fair-minded British academics will be willing to listen to our case and give it thoughtful consideration. Truth is stronger than power, and we trust in the integrity of British academics to know that instinctively.

In fact, we can detect the not-so-hidden hand of that lobby in this latest episode of stifling debate on issues pertaining to Israeli policies and the complicity of the Israeli academy in perpetuating them. Given that the same suppression of academic freedom has been proliferating among US campuses for quite some time, one cannot escape the conclusion that an abhorrent wave of new McCarthyism has perhaps crossed the pond.

By resorting to bullying, censorship and intimidation, however, the Israel lobby in the US and UK, supported by the Israeli government and academic establishment, is declaring its definitive loss of confidence in its own ability to rationally refute the case for an academic boycott against Israel.

By muzzling debate and free discussion on the boycott, the lobby and its supporters within the UCU are suppressing academic freedom in the most crude manner. They are proving once again that they were never concerned about the alleged “infringement” of the boycott on academic freedom; rather, their only concern has always been how to shield Israel’s unique form of apartheid from scrutiny and censure. Their aim has been to protect the Israeli academy from damning accusations of complicity in maintaining Israel’s oppression of all Palestinians, academics and students included.

We think that UCU members are aware of the significant role played by the union’s predecessor, the Association of University Teachers, in upholding academics’ commitment to justice in a historical precedent. During the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa, British academics were at the forefront of boycotts of the racist state. We do not see why considering ways of fighting Israel’s unique yet equally pernicious form of apartheid should be subject to different considerations.

We appreciate the sentiments expressed in the UCU statement about finding a way of opening a dialogue with the Palestinian academic community on building solidarity. The best form of solidarity with Palestinians is direct action aimed at bringing an end to the occupation and the regime of apartheid in Palestine. Isolating Israel in the international arena, through various forms of boycott, divestment and sanctions, and forcing it to obey international law and to respect Palestinian rights, are among the most effective and morally sound strategies open to international civil society. We are confident that our British colleagues will begin to realise that true solidarity with Palestinian academics requires a political commitment to bringing about an end to oppression and injustice.

Needless to say, the boycott campaign will not only continue, but is likely to gain public support among western academics in particular; the true face of the anti-boycott camp has been exposed as a McCarthyist front that unabashedly violates the most revered values of academic freedom and open debate.

· Amjad Barham is head of the council of the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees

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