Op Ed: Parallel Universe

by Sally Fitzharris

The concept of a parallel universe will be familiar to all who have read ‘His Dark Materials’ by Philip Pullman.

And readers of the recent House of Lords debate, concerning anti-Semitism on university campuses, could be forgiven for believing they had entered an alternative world.

This is not say that anti-Semitism does not exist on campus,  or that some Jewish students do not feel vulnerable, or that it is not the job of governments to monitor and take action against any such race crime.

But the real evil of anti-Semitism – which is denounced equally by critics of the Israeli government – was conjoined with the proposed academic boycott.

And in a debate of some 5,000 words the word ‘Occupation’ was simply never mentioned.  Which universe is the real one?

“There are ongoing attempts by the University and College Union to initiate a UK-wide boycott of Israeli academics. Such a biased and unhelpful response cannot be tolerated or supported…… academic freedom is the first target of tyrannies, and those who ignore attacks on academic pursuits are co-operating with tyranny,” said Baroness Deech who had secured the debate.

It is precisely this lack of academic freedom for Palestinians which has led many, Br Peter Bray, the Vice Chancellor of Bethlehem University among them, to support the boycott.

Occupation is about control. And choking off the movement of people is the most effective way to make the normal functioning of an academic institution impossible.

Obstacles to travel, among many other difficulties,  were highlighted in a report written in April of this year, by a delegation representing the European Platform for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. (EPACBI)

For students, the frequent checkpoints, which mean lining up outside the bus, possibly waiting for hours to have ID checked,  the humiliations at the hands of Israeli soldiers, the possibility of arrest and administrative detention, all discourage students from studying away from their home town.

Anwar, an exceptionally talented student now at Bethlehem University wished to read Architecture at Al Quds in East Jerusalem – the only university where that subject was available. Her family said that the university was too far from Dheishe refugee camp and that travelling to and from would be too dangerous and also expensive. Al Quds is some six kilometres from her home.


Israeli control is arbitrary: an Italian student on an Erasmus scholarship was denied entry to Birzeit University, after many hours of humiliating interrogation.

While critics of the boycott invoke the ‘right to freedom of expression’ this is a right denied to Palestinian students, two of whom, Abdul Rahman Abu Dahab and Ahmed Walid Hamid from Birzeit University were arrested and beaten during a peaceful protest in October.  There is video footage of an Israeli soldier shooting Ahmed Walid Hamid at close range in the thigh, before continuing to beat him.  Both students are still being held, illegally, in administrative detention.

Palestinian academics, apart from a small minority with Jerusalem residence permits, can only exit Palestine via the Allenby Bridge. Exit requires a visa, which necessitates visiting the issuing office in Israel, a journey which in itself requires a special permit. If they jump through these hoops successfully, they may still be detained for up to eight hours at the Allenby Bridge or turned back without explanation. Academics wishing to travel between West Bank universities face punitive delays. To deliver a one hour lecture at a neighbouring university may require a whole day’s travelling.

Academics who live abroad and are invited to teach, will be refused entry if they state they wish to take up a post at a Palestinian university. Their only means of entry is to apply for a three month tourist visa. A professor of law at Harvard University who sought to visit Al Quds University was interrogated for fourteen hours at Ben Gurion airport.


The siege on Gaza – illegal in international law, but with the complicity of western governments  now in its eighth year –  has kept several thousand students trapped inside Gaza and unable to complete their degrees in the West Bank. This has had a particularly heavy impact on medical students who have been unable to travel to the Al Quds Medical School in Abu Dis, the only centre where they can receive clinical  training.

Israel is rightly praised for its brilliance in the field of medicine as in other branches of science and technology. But it deliberately refuses young Palestinians the same opportunities for clinical training, research and world class facilities.

“It is not morally justifiable to hold all Israeli academics collectively responsible for the actions of their Government.”   In the parallel world nobody mentions the collective punishment of Gaza.

Br Peter Bray, speaking movingly of the ‘frustration and suffering’ of his students at the World Congress on Education in the Vatican, said when peace did eventually come, Palestine would need  ‘educated, resourceful and creative people ’ to help make the new Palestine. And that this was the role of Bethlehem University.

It is in the interest of Western governments to support this, by upholding the right in international law to education.

Lord Janner, speaking in the Lords debate, reported meeting many Jewish students who felt ‘isolated and vulnerable’. Might he have spoken with PhD student, Ilan Manor, who wrote of his experience, worth quoting at length, in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz?

“There is a facial expression one encounters time and again when you say you’re from Israel…… of disapproval, of anger and of condemnation.

Oxford …….  is a global melting pot: The dining halls are filled each night with students from Switzerland, the Netherlands, Korea, Japan, Nigeria, Egypt and India…….The manner in which Israel is perceived by all these future leaders is therefore of great importance — and it is perceived poorly.

When conversations regarding Israel do ensue, they deal with the disproportionate use of power during the 2014 war in Gaza, the high death toll among Palestinians (statistics which many British students with whom I have spoken can quote), the violent behavior of settlers towards Palestinians documented in videos that have gone viral in the UK as elsewhere, the checkpoints, the economic ruin of the Gaza strip and the continued refusal of Israel to recognize Palestinian independence.

Nelson Mandela, in his 1994 inaugural speech, spoke about how post-apartheid South Africa would never more “suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.” It is after you have talked with all these students from all over the world, after you have been greeted time and again with the same expression of condemnation, that you realize that these days, Israel is the skunk of the world.”

Can critics of the academic boycott and other sanctions, put forward any other way to end the Occupation which has so damaged Israel’s international standing?


“For many years I lobbied diplomats and ministers believing that was were power lay. But after decades of inaction I have realised that change will only be brought about by civil society,” commented the veteran activist Jeff Halper, Jerusalem director of Israeli Committee against House Demolitions (ICAHD)

The report’s authors agree:  “…recent historical record confirms that Western governments generally act on an issue of ethical importance only when civil society mobilises its support.”

Boycotts are non-violent. And, as was demonstrated in South Africa,  they work.

Sally FitzHarris View more

Sally FitzHarris
Sally FitzHarris first visited Palestine in 2003. She has been back many times since then, as a free lance journalist writing on human rights issues. In 2010 she stood as the Liberal Democrats' candidate for Kingswood - but has since left the party over its failure to support international human rights law in Palestine.

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