Settlement university law set to stoke Israel boycotts

New legislation would bring higher education institutions in the West Bank under Israeli law

Campaigns for an academic boycott of Israel are likely to be ramped up in the wake of a move to bring higher education institutions in the West Bank settlements under Israeli law, scholars have warned.

The new legislation is seen as putting higher education at the centre of the debate over the West Bank settlements, which are viewed as illegal under international law. It would bring Ariel University in Samaria and other colleges under the auspices of Israel’s Council for Higher Education, ending the role of the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria.

Critics of the bill, which was sponsored by the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi Party, argue that it amounts to the first annexation to Israel of a part of the occupied territories in 50 years, since the country captured East Jerusalem in 1967.

Naftali Bennett, minister of education and leader of the Habayit Hayehudi party, told prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would block other legislation until this bill advanced, according to a report in the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The bill has already passed the first of three rounds of voting in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

A campaign against the law spearheaded by Amiram Goldblum, emeritus professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has gained the support of 220 senior academics in Israel.

Writing in Haaretz, Professor Goldblum argued that the bill was a “guaranteed formula for a tsunami against science in Israel”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, he said that the legislation would lead to an increase in academic boycotts of Israeli universities.

“It will be mostly hidden boycotts and not explicit ones,” he said. “I don’t see any university in Cambridge or Oxford or the US boycotting an Israeli university. That won’t happen.

“But all the hidden ways are open. And they’ve been already exercised in many cases in the last couple of years.”

Examples of hidden boycotts include international journal editors rejecting papers from Israeli academics or PhD graduates from Israel being unable to secure a postdoctoral position abroad, Professor Goldblum said.

The bill would also result in a reduction in overseas funding, he continued, given that the European Research Council requires that no funds are transferred directly or indirectly to the settlements and the US-Israel Binational Science Foundation does not accept research proposals from the settlements.

Professor Goldblum said that research universities in Israel receive about 50 per cent of their research funding from Europe.

Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations and Emirates chair in contemporary Middle Eastern studies at the London School of Economics, agreed that the impact could be significant.

“If the new bill is implemented, I expect academic boycotts worldwide of Israel will increase considerably and Israeli universities will receive much less overseas funding, especially from the European Union,” Professor Gerges said. “The bill clearly shows that the right-wing government in Israel has contempt for legal and ethical concerns, acting more like a rogue state.”

David Harel, the William Sussman professorial chair of the department of computer science and applied mathematics at the Weizmann Institute of Science, who has signed up to Professor Goldblum’s campaign, said that the law would “damage…the Israeli scientific and academic community in general”.

“There’s definitely a potential for certain bodies refusing to fund research in Israel in general…This might be very bad for Israeli science,” he said.

Mr Bennett “is using the fact that he happens to be the minister of education to do what he really wants to do, which is to annex the entire territories and make Israel so much larger and officially in charge of the occupied territories”, he added.

Ariel University, the main object of the legislation, was granted full university status amid controversy in 2012. The institution has been subjected to a boycott by the UK’s University and College Union, and its researchers had to withdraw from a conference in London in 2014 after being told that they could not mention their institutional affiliation.

Despite the academic campaign, Professor Harel, who is also vice-president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, said that the law was unlikely to face much opposition from the general public in Israel.

“It doesn’t sound to your average Israeli as a blatant movement to annex the territory,” he said.

Geoffrey Alderman, Michael Gross professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham and a former guest professor at Ariel, argued that the new bill “is unlikely to change very much”.

“Those academics who are diehard boycotters would still boycott. Although boycotters are very vociferous, their bark is far worse than their bite,” he said.