International Keynote speakers at two Israeli conferences withdraw in reaction to BDS calls

The recent success of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in deterring leading academics from participating in Israeli conferences is a marked move forward towards removing academic respectability from Israeli institutions, and persuading more academics to refrain from collaborating with the Israeli occupation and apartheid regime. Two conferences scheduled for June 2014 have now lost their intended keynote and plenary speakers – June 7-9 Oral History Conference at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and for the June 8-11 Film and Television Studies Colloquium at Tel Aviv University (TAU) – in both cases the international scholars announced that they will not take up the invitation to deliver keynotes, while the TAU plenary speaker withdrew her scheduled participation. In both cases the organisers were forced to fall back onto local Israeli speakers, and the majority of contributions to both forums are now also drawn from local institutions. The supposed international character of the conferences is obviously a charade now. Israeli academics, failing to support the civil rights of their Palestinian colleagues, are increasingly on their own.

In the nine years since 2005, when 170 Palestinian Civil Society organisations asked the international community to boycott, divest from and sanction the continuing apartheid regime and illegal, brutal occupation by Israel, the call was heeded by hundreds of organisations around the globe. Recently, the seemingly impregnable US academic community has shown growing commitment to the case of Palestinian civil rights and opposition to the occupation, as did academics in Ireland, Australia, France, Spain and elsewhere.

Increasingly, the focus is moving to academic collaboration with Israeli universities leading to participation in conferences in Israel, as well as common research projects. Israeli academia has never acted as a body to support either the end of occupation or the case for civil rights, let alone academic freedom, for Palestinians, despite lengthy closure of academic institutions by the occupation forces, in some cases lasting more than four years, as well as the daily harassment of Palestinian faculty and students in both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt).

Speaking for many oral historians who signed a call to boycott the Jerusalem conference, Professor Rosemary Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon has commented on this development, thanking the academics who have withdrawn: “The response to our campaign to boycott the Hebrew University”s “international” oral history conference has been heartening. It shows unequivocally that scholars around the world are becoming aware of the facade of respectability that Israeli universities give to a colonialist regime, and how they assist it. The Hebrew University”s particular colonizing role has been widely exposed. The large number of signatories obtained also vindicates petitions as a method of campaigning. Through the two petitions we were able to inform a large segment of international academics of the ways that the Tel Aviv and Hebrew universities support the state.”

Filmmaker and educator John Greyson has added his voice to those who support the academic and cultural boycott: “The boycott call doesn’t target scholars or filmmakers or films per se – just the opposite – instead it calls on international conferences and festivals to refuse funding from the Israeli state and its complicit institutions when they present an Israeli scholar or film or filmmaker – and likewise, the boycott call asks international scholars and artists not to participate in festivals or accept invitations to professional occasions that receive such funding (in Israel or elsewhere) and not to visit Israel for any but oppositional purposes.Thus, Israeli culture is not the target – what is targeted is the state machinery involved in the occupation and other human rights violations.”

Professor Michel Chanan of Roehampton University, London has added: “The Israeli government has recently also changed the rules of public support for film production, making it impossible for productions to get financial support unless they openly support the government, and Israel as “Jewish state.” Such changes make sure that no critical voices will be permitted a platform. This measure, added to the many additional anti-democratic legal and political-economic moves over the last couple of years, mark Israel not only as a military aggressor, but as a deeply undemocratic society.”

The action for boycotting both conferences was carried out by members of BRICUP (British Committee for Universities in Palestine) and USACBI (US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel), and is supported both organisations. These organisers thank the international leading scholars for their principled stand, and call upon the international academic community to follow their lead.


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