Marking the first time an Israeli government official has become involved with the academic boycott debate, Minister of Education Yuli Tamir, speaking in London on Monday night, said "There is no way - and I think it should be said loud and clear - that an academic boycott will change the foreign or internal policies of the State of Israel."
Tamir was responding to the fact that The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), soon thereafter now defunct, voted to boycott Israeli academics at their May conference.
However, following the merger between NATFHE and AUT to form the University and College Union (UCU), the boycott policy expired.
The UCU will hold their annual conference in May 2007 with the strong possibility a motion to boycott Israeli academic institutions will be raised.
Speaking to an audience at St Johns Wood Synagogue in northwest London at an event organized by the Union of Jewish Students and Engage, a left-wing group of academics that focuses on combating anti-Semitism and the demonization of Israel on the left, Tamir said the boycott was really worrying because it was "a sign of unwillingness to entertain a true debate about Israel's policies".
"We want to put Israel's case openly and are not worried about the public debate. Israel can present its case in a very clear and convincing way but I am afraid of the situation where there is no dialogue but where there is a silencing of the argument and of our ability to present our views," she told the audience.
Acknowledging the legitimacy of criticizing the Israeli government, Tamir said she thought a boycott might be more about deligitimizing Israel.
She powerfully made the case for Israel and called for better understanding saying, "Israel today can proudly say it is fighting a war, a very difficult war - against terrorism, against Islamic fundamentalism, and is doing it in a way that is appropriate, in a way that many other countries, including the UK, when they had to face this kind of a threat, behaved in a much more severe way, restricting human liberties and freedom without balancing it out the way Israel does.
She said that, ironically, a boycott would harm those in Israel who "fight for a more liberal and democratic society and for human rights"
"The outcome [of a boycott] in Israel won't be a debate on what's right and wrong. It will be silencing the debate because all the Israelis will stick together and say 'they don't want us, we don't want them."
She said a boycott was "abusing academic power for political purposes" and added that she hoped "the major forces in the academic world will say no to the idea of a boycott, and that there will be enough people engaged and ready to take a public position against it, so that the next time I come here, we can debate what is right and wrong about Israeli policies, and engage in dialogue about things that concern us - diversity, pluralism, multi-culturism."
She admitted that balanced dialogue was hard to accomplish when dealing with a Hamas-led Palestinian government.
"As a member of the peace movement it's very difficult as I am committed to the idea that we should always talk to the other side, but is the other side willing to say at least, that if we talk and reach agreement there will be recognition of the right of Israel to exist? I'm afraid the answer right now is not an obvious yes." Tamir said
She added that the international community should engage with Israel.
"Some of the problems we had in recent decades are now entering the West and we have some very good ideas about how to deal with these issues, " she stated to rapturous applause.
The meeting was chaired by Adrian Cohen of Engage who in his introductory speech called the idea of an academic boycott an "opportunistic campaign" that breeds on resentment of America, based on appeasement of extreme Islamism and an easy target [Israel] that people feel good attacking."
Engage was active in the campaign to overturn an earlier academic boycott in 2005 when the AUT voted to boycott Bar-Ilan University and the University of Haifa.
The motion was eventually overturned by the Special Council of the AUT that was convened by Dr John Pike, the chairman and founder of Engage.
At the event, Pike talked about the calls to boycott Israeli institutions, a proxy fight to blanket boycott Israel. He expressed support for Palestinian academics and concerns with the freedom of movement of Palestinian students, and the effects of the security fence on them.
"The campaign is not a symbolic objection but a campaign that involves excluding and rejecting Israeli academics from the academic community. Let's be absolutely clear about that."
This year, the AUT did not discuss a boycott at their national conference in May. The NATFHE did pass a boycott motion at their May conference. However, following the merger between NATFHE and AUT to form the University and College Union (UCU), the boycott policy expired.
Pike appealed for people to help oppose the boycott motion, for academics to join the UCU, and for students to lobby lecturers.
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