Fearing Boycott, Israeli Academics Warn against Accrediting West Bank School

Article excerpt

The Israeli higher education committee for the West Bank approved accreditation of Ariel University Center today. One university president warns the move endangers Israel's 'next Nobel prize.'

Perched on a hilltop range in the northern West Bank, the Ariel University Center (AUC) looks west toward the Tel Aviv skyline 20 miles away and north to the minarets of Palestinian villages a few miles off.

The ivory tower has sprouted up amid the red-roofed settler homes and olive tree groves at the edge of Ariel. In between classes, stylishly dressed students stretch out on manicured lawns shaded by pines. It's a cutting-edge place, too: A promotional video touts an optical laboratory that tests non-invasive surgical tools while academic officials brag about a laser project and students talk about their research on water desalinization.

Built up over 15 years, the facilities, professors, and research are central to AUC's next goal: becoming Israel's eighth accredited university.

That would be a milestone for both the school and Ariel. It would bestow a new kind of national gravitas on the settlement, the fourth largest in the West Bank, making it more difficult to uproot in the case of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Political and academic officials have not been shy about that secondary goal. In AUC's promotional video, Stra-tegic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya-a-lon praises the school: "With its strategic location, [AUC] enables defensible borders for the state of Israel."

That's why what would likely be a simple accreditation process in almost any other country has instead become a controversial political decision. The question of whether to make AUC official raises explosive questions about Israel's long-term military occupation of the West Bank.

Now, after Israel's committee on higher education in the West Bank formally upgraded the university, concern is growing that such a move could fuel international efforts to boycott Israel, particularly its academic community, which often finds itself viewed by international colleagues as a proxy for the Israeli government. Accreditation of a university in the West Bank, they say, may be one step too far.

"It's a strategic threat to the state," said Hebrew University Pres-ident Menahem Ben-Sasson, ac-cording to Israeli news outlets. "We are putting the next Nobel Prize in danger."

Fair protest or delegitimization?

Since the second intifada and the collapse of the Oslo peace process more than a decade ago, Israel has faced efforts by Palestinian solidarity activists to promote an international boycott of Israeli professors, companies, and concerts because of their alleged association with Israeli government policies.

Palestinians and their supporters say the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, intended to persuade the Jewish state to end more than four decades of military occupation in the West Bank and to remove settlements, is a legitimate form of political pressure.

But even though some boycott proponents say they are solely focused on settlement activity considered illegal by the international community, many supporters of Israel consider boycotts part of a broader campaign to delegitimize Israel's right to exist.

Organized efforts at a boycott of Israeli academia started in 2002 in Britain, when a pair of Israeli language experts from universities inside Israel were dismissed from the editorial board of a British journal on translation studies.

Other universities have been dragged into the debate. In 2005, Jonathan Rynhold, a Bar-Ilan University political science professor, led a delegation of Israeli academics on a trip to Britain to help defeat a motion at the national Association of University Teachers that would have boycotted Haifa University for trying to censure a revisionist historian and Bar-Ilan University for operating classes on the Ariel campus, which was initially an outgrowth of Bar-Ilan. …