Catherine Hall withdraws from Dan David Prize

Professor Catherine Hall of University College London, the widely respected cultural historian, has withdrawn her acceptance of the Dan David Prize. Her name was included in the list of prize-winners….

Professor Catherine Hall of University College London, the widely respected cultural historian, has withdrawn her acceptance of the Dan David Prize.

Her name was included in the list of prize-winners announced in February. These prizes are awarded annually and presented at Tel Aviv University in an elaborate ceremony, due to take place this year on May 22nd. It is one of the most prestigious awards made in Israel, with the prizes often presented by Israel’s President. It is certainly the biggest award in financial terms, with $1million for each of 3 prizes (though it is common for each prize to be divided between a number of recipients – as itthey are this year).

According to the Jerusalem Post, the prize was awarded to Catherine Hall for her ‘impact on social history, as a pioneer in gender history, race and slavery. While active in the women’s liberation movement, her work focused on women’s history in the 1970s’. Catherine Hall’s work has indeed made a significant contribution to these areas. She, along with her late husband, renowned cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall, have been leading figures on the intellectual left since the 1970s.. Her recent major AHRC/ESRC funded projects on the structures and legacies of British-Caribbean slave ownership are politically and academically ground-breaking as well as prestigious.

Catherine Hall reconsidered her decision to accept the prize after consulting widely. In mid-March she notified the Dan David organisation that she was withdrawing. They did not at first remove her name and photograph from their website, but have eventually done so. She communicated the following to BRICUP:

My statement is that I have withdrawn from the prize – this was an independent political choice, undertaken after many discussions with those who are deeply involved with the politics of Israel-Palestine, but with differing views as to how best to act.

We might have hoped for a statement more supportive of the BRICUP and PACBI principle of boycott. Nevertheless the BDS movement, and especially its academic wing, is delighted that such a high profile breach of the academic boycott will not be taking place. Given that Dan David Prize winners are always promoted in headlines in Israeli newspapers, in effect as evidence that Israel retains international credibility and respect, this is another defeat in Israel’s battle against BDS.

One can perhaps infer that, in some sense, academic boycott is on course to becoming the new norm, the default position that one needs a committed ideological position (either to the State of Israel, or to the precedence of academic interchange above all other principles) in order to reject.

Other Prize-winners

There are three Dan David prizes each year in categories concerned respectively with the Past, the Present, and the Future. Catherine Hall’s prize, as befits a historian was in the first of these. Two other British researchers feature in the current year’s list. They are

  • Professor Sir Anthony (Tony) Atkinson, of both LSE and Nuffield College Oxford. An economist and econometrician, he is a leading international scholar on poverty and inequality. Tony Atkinson is noted for his concern with issues of social justice. It is therefore particularly sad that he has been unwilling to respect the call of Palestinian civil society for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel.
  • Professor Sir John Pendry, a physicist working at Imperial College.

More on the Dan David Prize (and why it should be boycotted)

The Dan David Prizes have been awarded annually since 2001. Their founder, Dan David, died in 2011 – he was an Israel-based businessman and philanthropist who made his money initially from photo-booths, before diversifying.

The Prizes are overseen by a mixed bag of senior academics (university Presidents and the like) and businessmen (yes men) from Israel, the United States and France. And also Henry Kissinger. The Chair of the Prize Board is Professor Joseph Klafter, President of Tel Aviv University. So the degree is intimately linked to this Israeli academic institution, which is linked in turn to a dazzling array of services to the Israeli state including in its most oppressive modes. TAU has particularly intense connections with the Israeli military. The cover story of its Winter Review 2008/9 is an account of the 64 projects for the military that were then ongoing. The timing of this Review is interesting – just around the time of the Cast Lead assault on Gaza which caused 1400 Palestinian deaths.

In July 2014, in the middle of Operation Protective Edge which killed another 2200 Palestinians in Gaza, the university’s President Klafter expressed his “appreciation” for students who went to serve in the army and said “Tel Aviv University has contributed and still contributes greatly to national security.” He announced that the university would be providing students called up to serve in Gaza with one year’s free tuition->]. Still more recently in May last year the University announced that it was [awarding all its honorary fellowships for that year to four Israeli army officials and military company directors. The theme is compelling and continuous.

Services to occupation and oppression come in many formats. It is a Geography professor at the university who is credited with coming up with the idea of the separation wall. And a professor of philosophy at TAU developed for the army the doctrine of disproportionate response.

It is of course the case that all Israeli universities are woven into the fabric of the occupation – after all, Israel has been operating its own version of the ‘one state solution’ since 1967. In all that time no university, or body of university staff in Israel has dissociated itself from the state policies which perpetuate the suppression of Palestinian rights. No university, or body of university staff in Israel, has spoken up for the academic freedoms of Palestinian universities which are deliberately hobbled by Israel.

When Stephen Hawking’s acceptance of an invitation to a prominent conference in Israel became a subject of controversy in 2013 BRICUP were in communication with him. At his request we then put him in touch with senior Palestinian academics – as far as I recall all university Presidents. As a result he wrote a letter withdrawing from the conference, in which he said that “Had I attended I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.” However it was the unanimous advice of his Palestinian interlocutors, he said, that he should, rather, respect the boycott.