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More than 300 trade unionists, academics, politicians, journalists and concerned citizens from across the political spectrum gathered in London on Wednesday night to condemn the recent spate of anti-Israel boycott calls in the trade union movement and to look at ways to combat them.
Organized by the Engage Web site, the Euston Manifesto Group, Progress and the Jewish Labor Movement, speakers included actress Maureen Lipman, journalist Jonathan Freedland, author Howard Jacobson and lawyer Anthony Julius, QC, as well as Labor MPs John Mann and Louise Ellman.
"I'm here not as an academic or somebody particularly left-wing or as an Orthodox Jew, but academic freedom is one of the most important freedoms we have and the boycott is the thin edge of the wej [slang for a Jew]... that's Jew backwards... and backwards is where we're heading if we don't put our heads above the parapet and shout 'No,'" Lipman said.
"Why, as writer Nick Cohen asks, is Palestine such a cause for the liberal Left, but not China, Sudan, Zimbabwe, North Korea or Burma with their appalling list of human rights abuses? There is a genocide of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Dufar that no one seems remotely interested in. Ethnic cleansing is driving refugees by the thousand into surrounding countries. Executions have gone up in Iran and China and Saudi Arabia in alarming measure in the last years. Why single out Israel for rebuke in such a different way from such rogue regimes?" Lipman asked.
Wednesday's meeting was divided into three sessions, with speeches, a Q&A session and seminars. The overwhelming consensus was that an academic boycott was an attack not just on academic freedom, but also, whatever the intentions of the boycotters, on Jews.
David Hirsh, editor of Engage and a member of the UCU, the university lecturers' union, said: "Increasingly, Israel is being thought of as a unique evil on the planet. It is said to be the only apartheid state; it is compared to Nazi Germany; it is held to control the global media; it is accused of being responsible for the war in Iraq; it is accused of having a policy of murdering children; it is held to be definitionally racist; it is thought to play a key role at the very vanguard of global imperialism."
Ellman, chair of the Jewish Labor Movement, said: "The singling out of Israel for special punishment is not about achieving a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It can only stigmatize the Jewish state for being particularly malevolent. This, whatever the intention, feeds negative historical stereotypes and can fuel anti-Semitism."
The meeting follows a number of protests from an array of institutions, organizations and individuals against the boycott and the singling out of Israel.
To date, 109 members of Parliament have signed a motion against the UCU call for an academic boycott of Israel.
Universities UK, the British Academy, the Royal Society, the Russell Group of Universities and a host of British, American and Canadian university vice-chancellors and presidents have rejected the UCU's academic boycott motion.
Major group letters and petitions against the boycott include full page advertisements in The Times and the Guardian signed by 250 prominent UK academics, a letter by 51 Nobel laureates including Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama and Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as over 7,000 international academics and intellectuals who signed the Scholars for Peace in the Middle East on-line petition and a major collaboration between Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and UK lawyer Anthony Julius.