Boycotting Israel: the uses of history

Stephen Howe
24 April 2005

On 22 April 2005, the annual council meeting of Britain’s Association of University Teachers (AUT) voted - against the advice of the AUT executive - for an academic boycott of Israel. Specifically, British academics are urged to boycott two Israeli universities, Bar-Ilan and Haifa. Even before the vote, the proposal aroused bitter contention, not only within the United Kingdom or Israel but worldwide. With last week’s decision that will only spread and intensify. The AUT move is the start, not the end, of a ferocious battle going far beyond academia.

Also by Stephen Howe in openDemocracy:

“American Empire: the history and future of an idea” (June 2004)

“An Oxford Scot at King Dubya’s court: Niall Ferguson’s Colossus” (July 2004)

“Dying for empire, Blair, or Scotland?” (November 2004)

“The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation” (November 2004)

“Israel, Palestine, and campus civil wars” (December 2004)

If you find Stephen Howe’s informed, acute, and fair-minded analyses of contemporary global issues valuable, please consider donating to openDemocracy to help us keep our content free

It’s not the first time. In Britain, as well as in France, the United States and several other countries, the past few years have already seen major storms over proposals for an academic boycott of Israel. Particular universities, and (in the US especially) the whole field of middle-east studies – have also witnessed fierce controversy; notably the recent rows at New York’s Columbia University and London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, on which openDemocracy has previously commented (see “Israel, Palestine, and campus civil wars”, December 2004).

Simultaneously, British student and teacher organisations are locked in dispute over Israel, and accusations of rampant anti-semitism among students have circulated. Three national officers of the National Union of Students (NUS) have just resigned in protest.

This article is not - or tries not to be – a contribution to the mass of polemic and abuse on the issue. It does not argue for or against boycotts. It tries, instead (with as much objectivity as I can muster) to set the current battle in context and explain its background.

The need for such explanation was brought starkly home to me on the eve of the AUT vote, when I had dinner with two close friends who teach at Haifa University. Both, as it happens, are Arab: one Palestinian Muslim, one Druze. Both were absolutely centrally involved in the events at Haifa which are the stated justification for the boycott. Had anyone from any side of the British AUT’s battles contacted them about it, sought their opinion, or even (before I did) shown them the text of the resolutions concerned? Appallingly, if perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is no.

Israeli universities, and their politics

Supporters of an academic boycott argue that Israeli universities and their staffs have not, as institutions, taken a stand against their country’s occupation policies, human-rights abuses or alleged disregard for international law. Their critics respond that, almost certainly, a higher proportion of individuals in Israel’s academic life speak out or organise against such things than in any other social or occupational sphere. Both claims are probably correct.

Boycotters further charge that Israeli universities participate in and deepen the institutionalised (some say apartheid-like) segregation and discrimination in Israeli society, which systematically disadvantages non-Jews. The other side responds that higher education in Israel is less segregated, and works harder against discrimination, than almost any other national institution.

Again, both sides have a good case. Arab and/or Palestinian citizens of Israel are approximately 18% of the total population (both the figures and the terminology are political footballs). Their participation in higher education is at less than half that proportion: in 1998-9 “non-Jewish” students were 8.7% of the total (though the figure is rising slowly). In 2000-1, only 19% of Arabs in the relevant age cohorts entered higher education, as against 40% of the general population.

Among academic faculty, the situation is considerably worse. There seem to be no reliable, up-to-date figures, but Arabs (both those who prefer to call themselves Palestinians, and members of the Druze and Bedouin communities) probably comprise little more than 1% of academic staff members. Defenders of Israel’s universities point out that such figures reflect not discrimination by them, but the general socio-economic profile of different groups in the society and the chronic long-term underfunding of Arab schools. If Arabs are under-represented in academia, they add, they are still more so in other professions, in government and in large businesses; at least some in the educational world are trying to redress the imbalance.

Whatever the merits of this defence, there are major variations across the sector. Israel has eight universities, though three don’t seem to count much in the global (or indeed the local) political argument. Haifa’s Technion and Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute are (like, say, MIT in America or Imperial College in London) specialist science and technology institutes, whose staff and students generally have a very low political profile.

Israel’s Open University, modelled on the British pioneer, has very few academic staff of its own (most teaching is done part-time by scholars from other institutions), does not offer research degrees, and has a distance-learning setup that militates against it being a focus for any social or political activity.

The five Israeli universities that do feature in the boycott argument are the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (the oldest and still most prestigious), Tel Aviv, Haifa, Bar-Ilan, and Ben Gurion University at Beersheba in the Negev desert.

Bar-Ilan University, just outside Tel Aviv, is the odd one out of these five. It is Israel’s only specifically religious university, openly proclaiming its commitment to “Jewish heritage” and Torah education – though it does have many secular and non-Jewish students. It is often seen as a stronghold of the political right, especially since Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, was a student there.

The secular academic world naturally tends to view many of Bar Ilan’s courses and qualifications in religion as of dubious quality, or simply as irrelevant to real-world science and research. But it offers the usual range of secular academic subjects too. And its teachers do include some strong – even, in Israeli terms, “far left” – critics of the state, perhaps most notably political scientist Menachem Klein.

Bar-Ilan became one of the two targets of the British boycott, though, not because of its internal politics or religiosity, but because of its association with the “College of Judea & Samaria” in Ariel, one of the biggest Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank.

[“Judea & Samaria” is one of those linguistic markers to which cognoscenti quickly become attuned: anyone using that name for the area is likely to be a supporter of the settlements, even a “Greater Israel” enthusiast. By referring to “the occupied West Bank, of course, I signal my bias the other way…].

From the mid-1990s, small numbers of “Judea & Samaria” students took degree courses validated by Bar-Ilan: thus involving the university, as pro-boycott campaigners argue, in direct collaboration with Israel’s occupation of the land where the college operates. The Bar-Ilan authorities have responded that their agreement with the Ariel college is being phased out and is set to end in 2005 anyway. This appears to be true: certainly I cannot find such courses listed on either the Bar-Ilan or the “Judea & Samaria” websites, nor any reference to them more recent than 2002.

Haifa’s history wars

The Haifa University case is much more complex. It involves an internal conflict about academic freedom and integrity that has a long history; but it is also itself about history, and is entangled with the very roots of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle and the nature of Israel’s identity.

Haifa has long had a leftwing reputation. Its proportion of Arab students and faculty has long been the highest of any Israeli academy – the former, at about 20%, now stands higher than the ratio in Israel’s population as a whole. That kind of thing makes Haifa unique, and an unlikely target for the British boycott.

The resolution passed by the AUT on 22 April should here be quoted in full. It reads:

“The AUT notes

  • That on May 15, 2002 Dr. Ilan Pappe, senior lecturer in Political Science at Haifa University, was sent a letter notifying him that he faced trial and possible dismissal from his position. The charge was that he had violated ‘the duties of an academic member of staff’, that he had ‘slandered departments and members in the humanities faculty, damaged their professional reputation and endangered the possible promotion of some of them.’
  • That these accusations related to Dr. Pappe’s efforts to defend a 55 year old graduate student, Teddy Katz, whose Master’s thesis was under attack by an Israeli veteran’s organization because it documented a massacre of 200 unarmed civilians by the Haganah (the pre-state army of Israel) at a village called Tantura, near Haifa.
  • That the recriminations are still continuing and Dr. Pappe’s job is still being threatened.

“The AUT has therefore resolved:

  • To call on all AUT members to boycott Haifa University until it commits itself to upholding academic freedom, and in particular ceases its victimisation of academic staff and students who seek to research and discuss the history of the founding of the state of Israel.”

The background to this story starts in late 1999, when Teddy Katz (actually now 62, and a veteran kibbutznik and peace activist) was awarded his Haifa MA. His thesis was a local study of events during the 1948 war on Israel’s central coast, looking at the fates of five Palestinian villages there but concentrating on two, Umm Zaynat and Tantura.

Katz relied heavily on oral testimony; he interviewed 135 Israeli and Palestinian participants, 40 of whom offered recollections of the events in Tantura. From these, Katz believed he had uncovered the hidden history of a massacre in Tantura on 22-23 May 1948. He alleged that many prisoners and civilians there – perhaps as many as 200 – were shot after the village had surrendered to Israeli forces.

On 21 January 2000, the Israeli tabloid daily Ma’ariv published a lengthy article largely based on Katz’s thesis, written by Amir Gilat. Gilat located and re-interviewed several of the eyewitnesses utilised by Katz. The Palestinians concerned largely confirmed their previous stories; but some of the Jewish ex-soldiers repudiated or modified what they had allegedly said to the student. After this publicising of Katz’s claims by Ma’ariv, veterans from the Israeli army unit allegedly involved, the Alexandroni Brigade, sued Katz for libel.

The trial opened on 13 December 2000. The prosecution case centred on Katz’s alleged misquotation, or even invention, of some passages from his interview material. But the affair now took a peculiar turn. On the night of the trial’s second day, Katz signed an “apology” stating that the massacre story was untrue.

Explanations for this about-face were varied and confused. Katz was in poor health both physically (he had previously suffered a stroke) and perhaps emotionally. He had been pressurised by relatives, friends and perhaps one of his own lawyers. Within hours, in any case, he attempted to retract his retraction and resume the trial (with subsequent accusations that this, in its turn, resulted from political pressures on him), but the court refused this. In December 2001, Katz again sought the Israeli courts’ permission to withdraw his “apology” and reopen the case, but again failed.

Meanwhile there was major academic fallout at Haifa itself. The award of Katz’s MA degree was “suspended”. And now Ilan Pappe entered the picture. Pappe was already well-known as one of the most radical of the youngish Israeli historians whose work challenged many cherished nationalist beliefs about Israel’s origins and ethos, especially those to do with the 1948 independence war.

Pappe was not – as many commentators seem wrongly to believe – Katz’s thesis supervisor: that was Druze historian Kais Firro. But Pappe become the most prominent advocate and publicist for Katz’s massacre allegations, charged Haifa university with ‘moral cowardice’ for failing to support its embattled student, and claims he has subsequently faced censorship and harassment by university authorities. His exposure of the affair outside Israel, in his articles and in lectures at Oxford and elsewhere, allegedly drew especial disapproval. Kais Firro, meanwhile, was less outspoken, believing the issue should so far as possible remain an academic rather than political one.

Haifa University appointed a committee of four experts to re-examine Katz’s thesis and his use of evidence. This committee believed it had found major errors – though there was the inevitable dispute over whether or not these were deliberate, politically motivated distortions as critics alleged. Katz was invited to revise and resubmit the thesis, still under Kais Firro’s supervision. He did so, and the new, massively revised and lengthened version was completed in September 2002. It corrected many misquotations and added much new detail and verbatim transcriptions from his interviews. But it still argued that Israeli forces had massacred dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Tantura villagers.

The university now appointed five new examiners: whose names (and political leanings) rapidly circulated on the internet, making a farce of the process’s supposed privacy. Their reports were startlingly divergent. Two of the five gave clear pass marks of 83% and 85%; two, equally decisively, failed it; the fifth awarded the thesis a 74% grade – though in another touch of farce, may apparently have been under the impression this was a pass mark (as it would be in most universities) when actually it was a fail one!

So, to Katz and his defenders’ fury, his work and its politically sensitive claims had been rejected. It was angrily intimated that the two clear-cut “rejectionists”, Arnon Golan and Avraham Sela, have themselves written about the 1948 war in ways that reflect the dominant nationalist narrative and without discussing alleged Israeli atrocities.

Ilan Pappe’s case

The focus of dispute, though, was by now more on Ilan Pappe than on Teddy Katz or anyone else involved. He continued to insist that Katz’s original findings were correct – though rather oddly, the account of Tantura in his A History of Modern Palestine gives no hint how disputed the facts are, and refers the reader only to his own articles on the affair and not to Katz’s research.

On 19 November 2001, Ilan Pappe made a public, international protest at Haifa’s “shameful” decision to disqualify Katz’s thesis. He was sharply critical of the university’s handling of the affair, and of individuals at Haifa who’d taken the “anti-Katz” side. Meanwhile those same individuals – at least some of whom, it seems plain, had long disliked Pappe on political grounds – were moving against him.

Among others, conservative historian Yoav Gelber launched a series of wide-ranging criticisms, ranging from Pappe’s historical methodologies to his alleged personal abuse of colleagues (and in the process used some frankly pretty abusive language of his own). The dean of Haifa’s faculty of humanities, Yossi Ben-Artzi, lodged a formal complaint against Dr. Pappe, seeking his dismissal.

This complaint, more than anything else, seems to form the basis for the British AUT’s boycott resolution against Haifa. Ben-Artzi wrote in part (quoted from his own English-language version, uncorrected):

“(Pappe’s) conduct leaves no doubt about the many violations he committed of the ethical code in an academic institute. His continues action, his lack of any regret or doubt of the things he repeats, and all his aim to defame, insult, humiliate, scorn and act in a lofty manner, damaging the good name and professional reputation of the university as a whole, of its legal institutes, of the departments of it collectively and many staff members in particular.

“Therefore, I call on the academic disciplinary court to judge [Pappe] for these violations in this suit, and exploit to the full its legal authority to bring to an end his work in the university and to his expulsion according to clause 4.1 of the codex of the duties of an academic staff.”

Ilan Pappe responded very publicly. He wrote on 14 May 2002 to wide range of people including American and British historians’ associations – and the letter was soon yet more widely circulated on the Internet. Here he argued that the prosecution in the “trial” arranged for him at Haifa “demands my expulsion from the university due to the positions I have taken on the Katz affair.” He went on:

“The reason the university waited so long is that now the time is ripe in Israel for any act of silencing academic freedom. My intent to teach a course on the Nakbah http://www.alnakba.org/ next year and my support for boycott on Israel has led the university to the conclusion that I can only be stopped by expulsion.

“Judging by past procedures this is not a request, but already a verdict, given the position of the person in question in the university and the way things had been done in the past. The ostensible procedure of a ‘fair trial’ does not exist and hence I do not even intend to participate in a McCarthyist charade.

“I do not appeal to you for my own sake. I ask you at this stage before a final decision has been taken to voice your opinion in whatever form you can and to whatever stage you have access to, not in order to prevent my expulsion (in many ways in the present atmosphere in Israel it will come now, and if not now later on, as the Israeli academia has decided almost unanimously to support the government and to help silence any criticism). I ask those who are willing to do so, to take this case as part of your overall appreciation of, and attitude to, the present situation in Israel. This should shed light also on the debate whether or not to boycott Israeli academia.”

Petitions supporting Pappe circulated rapidly and widely. Many of those who thus read about the affair were evidently under the misapprehension that he had been sacked from the university (a quick Google search still discovers many allusions to that effect). Haifa’s administration, also going public, insisted they were following a normal and proper complaints procedure, that under it Pappe was presumed innocent unless proven otherwise, and that: “contrary to Dr. Pappe’s claim, the complaint does not bear on his political views or his position on other matters. The complaint is about Dr. Pappe’s alleged unethical behavior.”

In the event, though, the whole affair took yet another rather mysterious turn. Ben-Artzi’s suit against Pappe was dropped, and what the latter had predicted would be a “McCarthyist charade” never took place. Pappe’s sympathisers naturally and understandably suspect that only international pressure, or the fear of it, produced this result. Nonetheless, he remains on the staff of Haifa University – though also seeking to build a future outside it. At Israel’s last general election, he stood unsuccessfully as a candidate for the leftwing Hadash party, and he has now co-founded and directs an independent research unit, the Emile Touma Institute.

The claim in the AUT’s resolution that Ilan Pappe faces continuing “recriminations” and even threats to his job cannot be dismissed – though there is no direct evidence of the latter. In May 2003 a conference he was set to run on the historiography of 1948 was cancelled by university authorities, in what Pappe saw as another act of political censorship. Ben-Artzi, now Haifa’s rector, is quite obviously a man of strong, even passionate and in some eyes extreme political views, as (on another side) is Pappe. Can one doubt that the conservative, nationalist rector would like to get rid of the troublesome leftwing historian?

Yet although Ilan Pappe has evidently had a difficult time, and although it would be extremely hard to argue that Haifa’s administration has behaved well across the long, sorry Katz-Pappe story, is it so very clear that the university has negated academic freedom, or in the AUT’s words “victimis[ed] academic staff and students who seek to research and discuss the history of the founding of the state of Israel”?

There is much that remains unclear in this saga, and some starkly contrasting versions of events. I have read many hundreds of articles, interviews and documents relating to the controversy; I have talked in detail to many of those most closely involved at Haifa; I have even written a little about it myself. Even now, I don’t feel I know for sure what happened – either at Tantura in 1948 or at Haifa University in 2000-2005. How can the members of the Association of University Teachers after just a few minutes’ hasty and apparently one-sided debate, seem so confident that they do know?

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