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Battle of the trenches: academic boycott versus… ‘Israel Studies’

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On Tuesday, an article in The Guardian reported an “expansion” in Israel studies at London’s School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), as well as “a new European Association of Israel Studies (EAIS) to be launched in September”. During the course of the article, there are assurances that there is no ‘agenda’ behind these developments – repeated assurances. 

·         “efforts…to promote a more nuanced and academic understanding”

·          “an academic alternative to…‘the megaphone war’”

·         “[People] are fed-up with slogans and one-sided approaches”

·         “We have been very conscious not to be involved in this as any form of Israel advocacy”

·         “This is advocacy for Israel studies, not for Israel”

·         “a desire to counter growing politicisation of academia”

·         “scholarship should be distinct from advocacy and polemics”

·         “It’s not supposed to be some tub-thumping bastion of Zionism”

Aside from the repetition, the “counter-polarisation” spin is undermined by the fact that the article – and those quoted in it – reads like a textbook example of Israel’s “rebranding” initiative. In 2009, The Jerusalem Post reported on The Reut Institute’s recommendations for countering “delegitimization”, including advice to “brand Israel away from its image as purely a place of conflict…[and] promote Israel Studies Departments at universities”.

On their blog, Reut staff have written that “in the context of Reut’s current work on how to fight the delegitimacy of Israel, the suggestion to create chairs of Israel studies in leading UK universities could act as an important component of Israel’s strategy.” Another post affirmed that “promoting Israel studies on campus and ‘branding Israel’—a strategy aimed at associating Israel with positive characteristics unrelated to the Arab-Israeli conflict—are central to improving Israel’s international standing and countering delegitimacy.” Prof. Colin Shindler and The Pears Foundation Director Charles Keidan – both featured in The Guardian report on Israel studies – were acknowledged in Reut’s “delegitimization” report and the London-focused follow-up.

Shindler is said, in The Guardian article, to believe that “the increasing interest being shown by students in different aspects of Israel, from its politics to its art and films, is part of a drive to understand the country and people outside the context of the Israel/Palestine conflict”. This is not only similar to Reut language, but also an echo of Brand Israel strategies, with PR firms entrusted with a mission “to create a brand disconnected from the Arab-Israeli conflict that focuses instead on Israel’s scientific and cultural achievements.”

Back in 2006, Ha’aretz published an article with the title, “A different way to fight academic boycotts“, followed by the subtitle: “Jewish donors establish Israel studies centers to improve country’s image”. The report quotes Professor Ilan Troen, director of the Israel Studies Center at Brandeis University, making the link between “the academic boycott” and “the willingness of donors to give funds toward this cause”.

There are parallels here with the Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange (BIRAX), the aim of which “is to strengthen academic cooperation between universities in the UK and Israel” (like the Israel studies’ expansion, BIRAX has received substantial financial support from The Pears Foundation). At the time of its establishment in 2008, Ben Gurion University Professor David Newman commented that BIRAX “has a great deal to do with the boycott”, with an unnamed source affirming to The Jerusalem Post that BIRAX’s focus on “junior academics” was “not coincidental” and aimed at influencing the boycott debate in the unions.

The link between BIRAX and attempts to neutralise the academic boycott movement was made explicit a number of times, including by the then UK’s Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell, in 2010 by Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis, and the current UK ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould: 

I also think the clearest possible answer to people who are calling for a boycott of Israel is to promote cooperation. So when people call for an academic boycott, we push for scientific cooperation. Just when people call for an economic boycott, we push commercial collaboration and when people call for a cultural boycott, we push cultural collaboration.

As the international BDS movement grows – particularly among students and on campuses – Israel’s advocates and defenders in the UK are doing their best to stem the tide.

Ben White

Ben White is author of 'Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner's Guide' and 'Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, discrimination and democracy'. Follow him on twitter at @benabyad and on his website

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