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Israeli plan for West Bank university fuels boycott debate in British academia

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“I think it makes a difference that Ariel is part of the university system, because of the idea of an academic going to the occupied territories, going to what is effectively a settlement built on stolen land and essentially giving a conference paper behind barbed wire,” says John Chalcraft of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP), a group of UK-based academics who support calls for a boycott of Israeli institutions.

“I think that will make a larger constituency feel more uncomfortable and complicit if they try to do business in that context.”

Dr. Chalcraft, a professor in history and politics at the London School of Economics, maintains that the boycott campaign, which has been the focus of heated debate at annual conferences of Britain's largest trade union representing lecturers and academics, has been gaining steady support. Chalcraft compares it to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement that targeted apartheid-era South Africa from the 1960s onwards.

But David Hirsh, a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmith's College, University of London, says that moves towards a boycott do not enjoy broad support among his peers or the general public. Rather, he says, the boycott movement's effect is to teach union activists, students, and young people that Israel should be treated “as one of the greatest threats on the planet.”

Mr. Hirsh adds that the boycott campaign, which he has vigorously opposed, may be making the situation worse.  He notes that the Israeli cabinet of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the first to endorse the idea that Ariel should become a university, did so not long after one of the major boycott debates in Britain. “So it was done almost as if it was an Israeli answer to the boycott campaign," he argues.

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