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Concerns about academic freedom as Israeli Apartheid Week comes under pressure

March 1, 2017 at 11:43 am

Israeli Apartheid Week UK poster

The student-led events of Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) will be held worldwide between 27 February and 3 March. This is the 13th year of campus-centred IAW programmes. In Britain, though, they are under pressure following the government’s adoption of a definition of anti-Semitism which includes criticism of the state of Israel.

Israeli Apartheid Week is remembered with particular dedication in South Africa, which suffered for decades under an Apartheid government, with its institutionalised racism and brutality. On 7 March, the Deputy Secretary General of South Africa’s governing African National Congress, Jessie Duarte, will lecture at an IAW event in Klerksdorp, such is the desire to see apartheid in all of its guises brought to an end.

Read: Previously cancelled conference on Israel to go ahead in Ireland

This year, the week holds special significance, says IAW’s website, with the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, whereby the British government promised to help with the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. This was reflected by the title of the topic under discussion at the opening plenary of IAW 2017 hosted by the Action Palestine Society at King’s College London on 28 February: “100 years of Palestinian resistance against settler colonialism”. The panel discussion included talks by veteran of the anti-Apartheid struggle, Black Lives Matter and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Britain’s adoption of a new definition for anti-Semitism, say observers, has been exploited to silence students in universities across the country from discussing the situation in Palestine-Israel and voicing criticism of Israel’s policies in the occupied Palestinian territories. The Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson MP, has written to the universities to warn against the global activities of Israeli Apartheid Week, limiting further the space for students to organise and campaign freely under the IAW banner.

Read: Do black lives matter less in Lancashire than in Apartheid Israel?

His letter has had an immediate impact. Last week, the University of Central Lancashire imposed a ban on a meeting where pro-Palestine journalist Ben White and other academics were scheduled to speak. According to the university, the meeting on “Debunking misconceptions on Palestine” would have contravened the recently endorsed definition of anti-Semitism.

A recent letter signed by dozens of professors and lecturers across Britain expressed dismay at what they believe are “attacks on academic freedom” and “explicit political interference in university affairs” by the government. They are concerned that the new anti-Semitism definition can be read as “extending to criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian rights.”

The President of the National Union of Students, Malia Bouattia, admitted the difficulty in maintaining a balanced atmosphere for students to practice their right to free speech on campus. “This is particularly relevant when Israel and Palestine are being discussed,” she told the Guardian.