The Allegation of Unfair Academic Closures:


     Allegations leveled against Israel include that they suppress academic freedom and that Israelis imprison Palestinian students for non-violent dissent.  Britain’s Association of University Teachers (AUT) rushed through and approved two motions calling for boycotts of two Israeli universities on Friday, April 22? 2005, in a blitz procedure timed, on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Passover, to exclude Jewish members from the conference.  To evaluate these allegations we will consider the report of two neutral organizations, the World University Service (WUS) and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)  who sent a mission of enquiry to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to investigate academic freedom there[i] and a letter by a British scholar on the Middle East who protested the boycott.


According to the report of the WUS and ICJ:


“The six principal institutions of higher education in the West Bank and Gaza have all been founded, or else upgraded to university status, since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967: indeed, almost all of the expansion of higher education has taken place since about 1972.  It is still continuing.  The Israeli authorities appear to have given permission, either at the beginning or retrospectively, for all the institutions to open, and have co-operated with them in several ways.


The rate of expansion of higher education has indeed been remarkable.  In 1967, apart from a few small colleges some of which formed a nucleus for later growth, there was little in the way of higher education inside the West Bank and Gaza.  By 1977-78 2,763 students were enrolled at the four main institutions: Birzeit, An Najah, Bethlehem and Hebron.  By 1983-84 there were 11,046 at the six we visited, and some 14,000 altogether if the smaller colleges are included…”


The authors wrote:


“At Birzeit, by chance, we witnessed two events symptomatic of problems in the occupied territories… [O]ur car overtook a stationary bus carrying Birzeit students: the bus had been stopped by Israeli soldiers and all the students had to get out to have their identity cards checked…  later that same morning the students organized a demonstration in the street just outside the old buildings of the university: this was to commemorate or rather reassert Palestinian condemnation of, the UN General Assembly Resolution of November 29, 1947 – the Partition Resolution that outlined a plan for the partition of Mandated Palestine west of the River Jordan between a Jewish state and an Arab state…  The demonstration was peaceful and impressive, and there was no Israeli attempt to stop it. “


     Why demonstrate against the partition plan?  That plan was meant to give Israel a state and the Palestinian Arabs a state that would coexist side by side.[ii] This demonstration could only be against the existence of Israel yet the Israelis did nothing to stop it.  What the authors personally witnessed was Israel tolerating extreme dissent. 


    The authors heard second hand about another student demonstration that took place on January 31, 1984 at Birzeit University which was followed by a military ordered closure of the old campus for three months. (Birzeit had both a new and old campus)


.  A statement issued by the Public Relations Office of Birzeit on 4 February said:


   On the afternoon of January 31, the army came to the University where a peaceful student gathering was being held inside the campus… ”


            Israel in an official announcement issued on 2 February explained their reasons for the closure. as follows:


“The Military Government decided today to close the old campus of Birzeit University for a 3 months period, following violent disturbances and grave violations of public order which took place at the campus on January 31st 1984.  In the course of these events, some 400 students gathered at the campus, paralyzed the studies, raised PLO flags, rushed into the nearby streets and laid road blocks, set tires on fire and stoned the security forces which came to enforce order at the scene…


The IDF and the Civil Administration will not permit students who are motivated by the PLO and activated by hostile elements to exploit the institutes of higher education in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza district for the purposes of incitement and hostile activities.


Conclusion:  The Israeli argument that they closed Birzeit in response to violence is more consistent with the author’s observations than the allegation that Israel imprisons students for non-violent dissent.


Reply from Denis MacEoin who has the petition on line to reverse AUT boycott.

I am a former AUT member who previously taught Arabic and Islamic Studies at Newcastle, was for many years an honorary fellow in the Centre for Middle East and Islamic Studies at Durham, and who becomes the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newcastle this September. My principal academic work has been in aspects of Islamic Studies, with particular attention to Iran and Shi'ite Islam. I have lived in Iran and Morocco, led an official visit to Jordan, have visited Turkey and Israel on three occasions. I believe I can claim some knowledge of the Middle East and its problems.

With that background, I wish to protest in the strongest possible terms to the manipulated and biased vote at your recent conference, demanding that AUT members boycott two (and possibly three) Israeli universities. The arguments put forward in favour of this boycott are, quite frankly, egregious and thoroughly based on ignorance, naivety, and an incredible urge to turn facts on their heads. None of this should happen within a union made up of academics, least of all in a country which was once famed for its dedication to academic freedom, to careful sifting of the facts, and to the experience of international co-operation at all levels of academic work.

The real problem for me is that the arguments advanced by the pro-boycott lobby (which might otherwise be described as a pro-Palestinian lobby, and even, at heart, an anti-Semitic lobby) are so manifestly wrong. Israel is, by any definition, the greatest defender of academic freedom, freedom of speech and publication, and freedom to research in the Middle East, and is outstanding in this respect internationally. The Arab population of Israel is given free access to university education, with as many as 30% of the student population at the prestigious Hebrew University in Jerusalem made up of Arabs. No Jews attend university anywhere in the Arab world. There is no religious discrimination in the state of Israel, and there are no restrictions on the expression of academic criticism of religion or atheist or agnostic thought. The opposite is the case in the Arab world and Iran, where academics have been put on trial and threatened with execution for the expression of quite trivial ideas about the Qur'an or Islam. As you may know, apostasy in Islam is, in theory, punishable by death. Young men and women who have sexual relations outside marriage (quite a common thing in British universities) suffer no sanctions in Israel. In countries like Iran or the PA governed territories, extra-marital sex can lead to often dire consequences, including death. Gay students (perfectly normal in our universities) have absolute freedom in Israel. Palestinian gay men and women regularly flee to Israel in order to escape punishment, humiliation, and even death. Racism is banned in Israeli universities, as it is banned and punished in all walks of Israeli life and enshrined in the Basic Laws of the state. Arab countries without fail discriminate against non-Muslims. Why is Israel called an 'apartheid state' while the Arab states are let off without even mild censure? There is no public racism in Israel, whereas every Arab state is openly anti-Semitic, with public statements that outdo the Third Reich in their virulence. Why didn't the AUT think to condemn this, or even boycott the governments responsible?

I am horrified by this hypocrisy that singles out one of the most open and just democracies in the world for vilification as racist and oppressive, while allowing dictatorships and theocracies to get off scot free. I thought the whole purpose of academic work was to set people free by exposing lies and making the truth clear. Now I see my fellow-academics bent on an exercise that runs wholly counter to that ideal, where university teachers lie to their colleagues and to the public, distorting reality so badly that future trust in our profession will be eroded to the point of no return.

I write to add my voice to the many protests you have already had. The AUT must reconsider this issue at the earliest opportunity. First, members must be given access to less biased accounts of Israel and its universities.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Denis MacEoin


[i] Roberts, A, Joergensen B., Newman F., Academic Freedom Under Israeli Military Occupation, Report of WUS/ICJ Mission fo Enquiry into Higher Education in the West Bank and Gaza

[ii] U.N. Partition Plan of 1947 for Palestine,