by Colin Green, Guardian Unlimited
Just as I campaigned for boycotts against apartheid in South Africa many years ago, now I shall do so against Israeli apartheid, says Colin Green
The strong and hostile response from pro-Israeli groups, as well as the UK government fearful of offending Israel, to a recent motion carried by a two thirds majority at the University and College Union (UCU) congress is in marked contrast to the joyful response of Palestinians, which has been almost totally supportive.
Perhaps the former have misunderstood that motion. After an open and very serious debate, one outcome upon which all agreed was that Israel is an oppressive state, illegally occupying territory for 40 years while ignoring numerous UN resolutions, international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Disagreement centred entirely on what the trade union movement could or should do about it. More specifically, we discussed the role of academic boycotts, which to all academics is normally an anathema. Free exchange of ideas and debate, however fierce, is central to our life. However, after 40 years without resolution, many of us believe that the Israel-Palestine conflict is the epicentre of a global conflagration so dangerous for all of us that abnormal responses have become an urgent, indeed desperate, moral imperative.
Even then, urgency notwithstanding, the motion passed was not calling for a boycott, but for a 12-month debate about an academic boycott. I suggest that that is in the best tradition of academic freedom and free speech. We will encourage Israeli academics to visit us, as indeed they did for weeks before the recent debate, and put their case for or against.
There are, after all, many Israeli humanitarian organisations and many Israeli individuals who believe that boycotts, sanctions and disinvestment are the only non-violent ways to force Israel to escape its descent into a pariah and rogue state.
In all this response to the UCU motion, or indeed the call for action against Israeli policies from the National Union of Journalists, architects, artists and doctors, the opinion of the Palestinians is little mentioned.
As one in daily communication with them at all levels, from government ministers, university presidents, professors, teachers, doctors, nurses and many involved in further education, not least the students, I can assure you that they are overwhelmingly in favour of the call for a debate, preferring that to a straight call for a boycott without debate. At last they will have the opportunity to travel outside the occupied territories and describe to the world the almost complete lack of academic freedom they endure.
Israeli apologists frequently quote the opinion against boycotts of a tiny handful of Palestinians, but these have no credibility whatsoever across campuses in the occupied territories.
This motion was tabled because of a call of desperation from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) as long ago as 2004. PACBI is not some fringe, lunatic or radical university group, but a confederation of more than 50 organisations from across Palestinian civil society. The boycott called for by PACBI and supported by the British Committee for Universities of Palestine (BRICUP), which tabled this motion, is institutional. We are not targeting individuals, in some McCarthyite programme, but organisations that have political aims and collude in the occupation, however loudly they protest their innocence.
Since starting academic work in the occupied territories during the first intifada in 1987, I have travelled a trajectory of hope to near despair. From a naïve optimism for a just and lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians 20 years ago, in which I welcomed with great enthusiasm Israeli postgraduates to my institute for specialist surgical training and research, I now refuse any collaboration with any Israeli university or research institution because of the violations of human rights I have seen over the past two decades and in which they collude.
As in the past, I still work with Israeli humanitarian organisations genuinely seeking justice for the Palestinians. I am no longer prepared to stand idly by and not come out publicly against the level of oppression I have seen, including ethnic cleansing and the establishment of a brutal apartheid regime, a terrible injustice against the indigenous population of the occupied territories.
What experiences can have brought about this revolution in attitude? In 1987, I was buoyed by the gentle, non-bigoted, optimistic attitude toward the Israelis of virtually all the Palestinians I met.
Even in the face of the violence and killings in the first intifada carried out by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF), they believed that reason and good will would prevail and the international community would come to their rescue. I was amazed how tolerant academics were toward their oppressors. None of them did, or could have, forecast the descent into hell which the Palestinians would endure in the next two decades, nor believe that a people who themselves had known such a hell could possibly descend to the level of barbarity we are now witnessing.
Just as film documentary images of British soldiers opening the gates of Belsen in 1945 was a defining moment in my life, so the immediate aftermath of the Jenin massacre and the terror of overwhelming military force in the destruction of Rafah, in Gaza, which I have witnessed in recent years have had the most profound effect on my opinions. You have to see it for yourself. We cannot go on muttering platitudes about academic freedom and exchange of ideas. What freedom?
In those two decades, the wretched suppression of academic freedom has been so obvious and overt that the wonder was that international academe did so little to stop it or even to comment on it.
The list of restrictions is too long to detail. Examples include: the closure of Birzeit University for four years; refusal of entry to that and all other universities for teaching faculty and students on the whim of heavily armed Israeli teenagers in uniform at checkpoints; refusal to allow passage to medical students to their teaching hospitals; raiding of campuses in the middle of freezing winter nights forcing women undergraduates to stand for five or six hours outside in their nightdresses simply to humiliate them while their dormitories were ransacked; refusal to allow doctors to attend their clinics and teach students on the ludicrous claim that their ID cards (valid for the previous 15 years) were fake; refusal to allow UK academics entry to Ben-Gurion airport and forced return on the grounds they were engaged in subversive acts simply coming to be medical teachers.
Then has been the refusal to allow a final-year student to attend his graduation ceremony and to add to his humiliation and torment by being forced at gunpoint to stand and watch the proceedings from only 400 metres away; refusal or long delays in granting exit permits for Palestinian research workers and teachers travelling abroad to conferences; the threat that if they travel overseas (especially if they have a Jerusalem ID) they may not be allowed back into their own homes again; endless restrictions on travel within the occupied territories so that attendance at lectures or important exams are a daily nightmare; the forced return of Gaza students “illegally” studying in the West Bank, some after seven years of separation from their families and in their final year of medical training; the deliberate shooting at school buses carrying six to 10-year-old children by Israeli snipers; recently, the kidnapping and imprisonment without charge of five senior university lecturers in Nablus; the killing of a young female medical student by CN gas. All of this I have witnessed at first hand.
My outrage is not fuelled by bigotry or racism, but by what I have seen. I am consumed with anger that I have not come out of the closet many years ago to protest publicly the wickedness I knew full well was going on in the occupied territories.
Without inquiring my opinion about China and Tibet, or Russia and Chechnya, or Darfur and Sudan, critics demand to know why I feel so strongly about Israel. First, it is what I know first hand, initially as sympathiser now bitter critic; second, because Israel does not even pretend to be part of the Orient, but is the one lingering outpost of European colonialism that participates in Euro song contests, football cups, preferential trade agreements, and EU and NATO research grants, and, therefore, has to carry the same human rights obligations and responsibilities we Europeans recently demanded of Serbia; and most important, the Levant has long been historically, and even more urgently so now, the epicentre of world conflict.
Just as I campaigned for boycotts against apartheid in South Africa many years ago, now I shall do so against Israeli apartheid. I strongly support the motion carried by a two third majority by my trade union, the UCU. Now, at last, we can actually have a robust, honest and fearless debate and engage with all shades of opinion on the conflict.
· Colin Green is professor of surgical science at the University of London