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PACBI | BRICUP Newsletter # 25 | February 2010

Confronting Official UK Support for Israeli Science and the Arts

This piece was published as the PACBI column in the BRICUP Newsletter, February 2010

 

Once again, the Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership (BIRAX) is in the news.  Conceived and publicized in July 2008 as an official UK-Israel response to the academic boycott of Israel, the scheme is now celebrating its scientific grant making successes one year later with the UK and Israeli governments announcing the allocation of additional funds.  UK Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis has declared that “[g]overnment support for BIRAX is a tangible example of our determination to oppose boycotts against Israel, which are unacceptable and do nothing to promote understanding or the cause of peace in the Middle East.  We hope the extra money we are investing will boost BIRAX in its second year and help extend the scheme more widely.”[1]  The scheme is also supported by the United Jewish Israel Appeal, Universities UK, and Israel’s University Presidents' Association.  It was designed and is administered by the British Council, the UK’s international cultural and educational agency.

 

When the founding of BIRAX was announced in 2008, both PACBI and BRICUP condemned the initiative publicly.  In particular, the direct linkage between the scheme and the anti-boycott campaign—openly admitted by several sources to the media at the time--was highlighted.  BRICUP urged British and Israeli academics of conscience not to participate in the proposed academic collaborations, viewing the partnership initiative as “a clear response to the decision of the University and College Union (UCU) in the UK, and other teaching and scholarly organisations internationally, to reflect on the appropriateness of continued contact with Israeli institutions in these circumstances.”[2]  In PACBI’s view, the scheme “was meant specifically to undercut UK, Palestinian, and international academics' calls for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” What PACBI found particularly offensive was the active sponsorship of BIRAX by the British Council, a UK agency with a long history of work in the occupied Palestinian territory.[3]

 

The recent announcement[4] highlights collaborative research projects involving academics from across the gamut of UK universities—from Oxford and Cambridge to Manchester, Leeds, and Cardiff—and from Israel’s main research institutions, primarily Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute.  It is no coincidence that the latter two institutions are the top offenders when it comes to the organic partnership with the Israeli defense and military establishment that characterizes all Israeli universities. Israeli universities have played a direct and indirect role in promoting, justifying, developing or supporting the state's racist policies and persistent violations of human rights and international law.  Just as an example, Tel Aviv University's involvement in developing the Israeli army's doctrine of "disproportionate force" is one area where the university can be accused of complicity in war crimes.[5] 

 

We believe it is time to confront the British Council more directly than in the past, not only for its administration and sponsorship of BIRAX but for its involvement in and indeed leadership of other UK-Israeli projects as well.  The British Council co-administers, along with the Israel Ministry of Science, the Science Network Development Scheme (SNDS), billed as a project encouraging “cooperation between professional scientists in both countries already engaged in national projects, supporting research topics to which both governments attach priority.” In view of what is known about the collaboration between the military and the academy in Israel, one can only speculate about the types of research supported by SNDS.  In addition, the British Council co-funds, along with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture and Sport the scheme called BI ARTS, the British Israeli Arts Training Scheme, besides other projects encouraging collaboration with Israelis in different fields.[6]  BI ARTS was the focus of protest last year for its role in promoting the incorporation of Apartheid Israel into major international forums and industry events such as the Sci-Fi-London International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantasy Film, which had organized a “focus on Israel.”[7]

 

The British Council is no stranger to Palestine, having supported Palestinian educational and cultural institutions for over five decades.  With offices in various parts of the occupied Palestinian territory and in Israel itself, the British Council is daily witness to the Israeli policies of apartheid and colonial domination, not to mention war crimes and other serious breaches of international law.  Therefore, the high-profile support for British-Israeli cooperation must be seen for what it is: an unabashed policy of encouraging and rewarding the oppressor, particularly in the scientific and artistic domains, two of the mainstays of the Israeli strategy of normalizing, or "-re-branding," itself on the global academic and cultural map.  The British Council’s purpose, which is to “build engagement and trust for the UK through the exchange of knowledge and ideas between people worldwide,”[8] is severely compromised by its biased support of the complicit Israeli academic and artistic establishments.

 

While Palestinian trust in the UK government is daily eroded by this and other examples of official UK bias towards Israel and British policy in Iraq and elsewhere, PACBI and indeed most of Palestinian civil society are greatly inspired by the steadily increasing support at the popular and grassroots organizational levels for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign against Israel.

 

We call upon British academics, scientists, and artists to reject grants through BIRAX, BI ARTS and other similar schemes (there are current calls for proposals for BIRAX and BI ARTS grants), and to pressure the British Council to end its unholy alliance with the Israeli government and its complicit institutions. A similar partnership with the academic and cultural institutions of apartheid South Africa would have been morally and politically untenable in the 1980s. Indeed, as support for the boycott against the apartheid regime grew, the British Council was faced with the question whether it should withdraw from South Africa or continue to work there, albeit under a different policy that can help end apartheid. 

 

"The issue was debated by both the European Community and the Commonwealth Heads of Government in 1985," the British Council website states[9], "and both agreed that member governments would not engage in cultural events.  But the European Community added the recommendation that programmes of assistance to non-violent anti-apartheid organisations and programmes to assist the education of the non-white community should continue.  This formed the basis of our work in South Africa during those years."

 

In Israel, though, the "basis" of British Council's work is evidently different; by partnering with Israeli institutions, the British Council, this time around, is being complicit in perpetuating apartheid and colonial oppression.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said of the British Council's work in the 1980's: "It is important to try to prepare people for the post-liberation South Africa.  This makes your scholarship programme relevant."[10]  BIRAX and BI ARTS are clearly at variance with such noble goals. It is time to end official British collusion in Israel's ongoing violations of human rights and international law.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said of the British Council's work in the 1980's: "It is important to try to prepare people for the post-liberation South Africa.  This makes your scholarship programme relevant."[10]  BIRAX and BI ARTS are clearly at variance with such noble goals. It is time to end official British collusion in Israel's ongoing violations of human rights and international law.

[5] http://www.electronicintifada.net/downloads/pdf/090708-soas-palestine-society.pdf.  See also the important report documenting the complicity of the Israeli academy in maintaining the structures of domination: http://www.alternativenews.org/english/2313.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

[10] Ibid.

http://www.bricup.org.uk/documents/archive/BRICUPNewsletter25.pdf

Posted on 16-02-2010


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