John Strawson is a law lecturer at the University of East London, and also teaches at Bir Zeit University, in the occupied West Bank. He spoke to Solidarity about the special council (conference) which the Association of University Teachers (AUT) has called for 26 May after protests from its members about the decision of its regular conference, on 22 April, to impose an academic boycott on two Israeli universities, Haifa and Bar-Ilan.
What would you like to see come out of the AUT special council?
That the council reverses the boycott and adopts a positive policy encouraging academic links with Palestinian universities which would include institutional relations, staff and student exchanges, teaching and research collaboration.
Do you think there is a risk that in the backlash against the boycott decision the importance of solidarity with the Palestinian people will get lost?
The main danger is that it will be seen a major victory for the right-wing in Israel although that is the result of the unprincipled people who put the motion the first place. However, what is clear is that in the main the people who have actively opposed the boycott have been academics committed to opposing the occupation — like Engage.
This means that the question of solidarity has now been raised, and we all have a responsibility to re-double our efforts on that front. In a years’ time we all have to make sure that there are more relations between British and Palestinian universities.
Do you think that the AUT can take up better policies than the boycott which could contribute to that solidarity?
Yes.I think we need an AUT fact finding mission to establish what is taking place in Palestinian higher education and survey needs and opportunities so that there are real links between the union and our Palestinian colleagues. We need a data base of universities and programs and of resources that can fund academic exchanges and links.
The AUT should also be serious about academic freedom, and should constantly publicise the way in which Palestine are harassed through check points, closures, IDF raids, the wall and travel restrictions.
British academics have a lot to gain from engaging with their Palestinian colleagues. There is a tremendous amount of important and exciting work taking place and really enthusiastic students to teach.
The problem with the boycotters is that their recipe is to do nothing. If the AUT adopts a positive policy along these lines, then British academics can really help undermine the occupation.