Borderline views: The wrong litmus test

Our international colleagues should be doing everything possible to promote and expand the conditions under which Israeli-Palestinian cooperation can take place.

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of writing about the successful BIRAX scientific cooperation between Israeli and UK universities. The context was not only the promotion of intellectual cooperation, but also the response to those who would boycott scientific ties because of the political situation as it relates to Israel, the West Bank and the status of the Palestinians.
This week, we have another story of scientific cooperation threatened with boycott. The University of Johannesburg in South Africa threatened to cancel a scientific cooperation program with Ben-Gurion University – an agreement which was signed only one year ago, and which focuses on areas of cooperation in biotechnology and water purification, to the benefit of all.
At last week’s meeting of the university senate in Johannesburg, a sort of compromise agreement was reached. An immediate boycott proposal was not passed, but the university made further cooperation and the renewal of the agreement dependent on the expansion of cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian universities.
The past 15 years have witnessed a great deal of scientific cooperation in diverse areas. I could spend the rest of this column outlining some of the joint projects which take place between Ben-Gurion faculty and both their Palestinian and Jordanian counterparts – be it in medicine, environmental protection and even overtly political issues such as human rights. But in doing so, I would be in danger of harming many of these programs.
In most cases, it is the Palestinian side which prefers to keep the project out of sight of the media. Important groups within Palestinian civil society, such as trade unions and academics, are highly critical of those who want to cooperate on a basis of equality when, in reality, there is no equality – political or economic. They are uncomfortable with the thought that through cooperation they are, de facto, legitimizing the occupation. Palestinian academics who work with Israelis find the political pressure to bow to the anti-intellectual logic of the boycott campaign difficult to deal with.
By declaring a long list of cooperative projects, I also fall into the trap of trying to prove myself (or the institution I represent) a “good Jew,” one that can be legitimized for no other reason than the fact that I work and sympathize with the “other” side, am opposed to occupation and promote the universality of human rights and independence for all.
As much as I hold these positions, they are not, for me, a litmus test through which Israeli universities should, or should not, be made legitimate. Joint research is carried out for the intrinsic reason of producing knowledge, not so the researchers can be seen to be ideologically correct.
BOYCOTTS do nothing to promote the interests of peace, human rights or – in the case of Israel – the end of occupation. The “good Jew” response by BGU would accept the logic of the academic boycott, but would argue for an exception for BGU on the basis that it passed the political test – one which is only applied to Israel. In reality, last week’s decision has given the pro-boycotters a sixmonth period to win additional supporters, legitimizing the idea that academic boycotts are justifiable.
And what about the countless attacks on Ben-Gurion University faculty from right-wing groups such as Im Tirtzu and IsraCampus, accusing us of dealing too much with Palestine- and occupation-related issues? These groups would like nothing better than to prevent Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.
The University of Johannesburg is, unwittingly, strengthening the hand of these ultranationalist groups and, ironically, making it even more difficult for cross-border dialogue and cooperation to take place. The boycott campaign strengthens the rejectionists on both sides, and weakens those building practical or political foundations for peace.
But even when there is a willingness to participate in joint ventures, it is not easy. Israeli academics enjoy working conditions which can only be dreamed of by their Palestinian colleagues. Meetings are never easy to arrange – Israelis are forbidden to enter Area “A” where most of the Palestinian universities are, and many are fearful of venturing into these areas even if they were allowed.
Palestinians coming to meetings in Israeli institutions have to apply for transit permits weeks in advance, and are often refused or left waiting until the last moment, when it is too late to make complex travel arrangements.
Those of us who believe it is important to advance scientific cooperation and build grassroots trust between the two scholarly communities should not fool ourselves into thinking that the conditions faced by the two groups are equal or symmetrical. They are not.
Israeli academics are all too often silent on the issue of access to higher education for Palestinian students. As Israeli academics who believe in cooperation, we should be the first to demand freedom of access for all Palestinian faculty and students to their own institutions and to institutions elsewhere in the world – with no more restrictions than those faced by us.
As in the case of BIRAX and the British universities, our international colleagues should be doing everything possible to expand the conditions under which Israeli- Palestinian cooperation can take place.
I invite my colleague Adam Habib, vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, to make good on his statement of last week, when he said: “We believe in reconciliation...We’d like to bring BGU and Palestinian universities together to produce a collective engagement that benefits everyone.”
I can show him examples of where universities around the world are hosting groups of Israeli and Palestinian scholars who find it difficult to meet under local conditions.
Take, for example, the Olive Tree program at City University in London, where Israeli and Palestinian students receive scholarships to spend three years studying for undergraduate degrees and understanding each other. Or the Daniel Turnberg Travel Fellowship Fund, which supports young medical researchers from Israel, the West Bank, Jordan and Egypt who travel to the UK and spend a month in a university or hospital, where they meet experts in their field and plan future research collaborations.
Or next month’s human rights workshop organized by the Crucible Center at the University of Roehampton, where Israeli and Palestinian scholars will discuss issues of common interest, beyond the boundaries of the conflict which prevents them from doing this at home.
Habib is welcome to choose the topic, the cooperating institutions and the relevant scholars. This would be a truly positive contribution by the University of Johannesburg to promoting the values it touted last week. And considering its own country, which was transformed into a new and equal society during the past two decades, who better to lead the world’s academic community in trying to bring Israeli and Palestinian scholars together?
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.