PARIS — The “boycott Israel” campaign in academic circles has crossed the English Channel. After a furious debate arose several months ago after two Israeli professors were removed from advisory positions on a pair of academic journals in England, the movement is now finding support in some French universities.
Late last month, the board of the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris issued a statement arguing that the Israeli occupation of the territories was making impossible the teaching and research activities of “our Palestinian colleagues” and urged the European Union to suspend its cooperation with Israeli institutions.
At the same time, the boards of several European universities have taken similar positions, including fighting against the renewal of a key agreement with Israel which allows Israeli products to enter the E.U. with reduced taxes.
The call for an academic boycott prompted furious reactions from the local Jewish community, which denounced the campaign as a perfect illustration of the “new antisemitism” in Europe — which they say obscures antisemitic feelings behind the shield of a more politically correct criticism of Israeli policies.
“They can say whatever they want, this is just singling out, pure and simple,” a European Jewish official said on condition of anonymity, pointing to the wider campaign to boycott Israeli products in Europe.
Since many universities in Europe are government-funded, the dispute has put European governments in the awkward position of defining the limit between free speech and discrimination.
While European governments have criticized Israel during the last two years, they have not taken punitive measures and have been content to see most of the frustration with Jerusalem channeled through the weaker E.U. institutions such as the European Parliament, from which it is easier for them to distance themselves.
Unlike campus disputes in the United States, which have focused on campaigns to pressure universities to pull their investments from Israel and have had limited public policy consequences, the European debate is directly weighing on the E.U. The pro-Palestinian European academics are fighting against the renewal of the so-called “association accord,” a tax agreement seen as crucial to the already ailing Israeli economy.
The anti-Israel campaigners argue that Israel is in violation of Article Two of the accord, which calls on parties to the accord to respect human rights and democratic principles.
Anti-Israel measures have gained momentum in European academic and professional circles since the outbreak of the intifada over two years ago. In April 2002, a petition was signed in various European countries calling for a moratorium on scientific and cultural relations with Israel until Jerusalem implements United Nations resolutions on the Middle East and negotiates a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians.
A 100-member colaition of “scientists for a just peace in Israel” has pledged not to cooperate with Israeli official institutions, not to attend any scientific conference in Israel and not to provide expertise assistance to Israeli authorities.
Several European politicians and intellectuals have condemned the initiative, but their protests have failed to grab headlines and Jewish activists bitterly complain about the general indifference toward the boycott campaigns.
“The overwhelming majority of Europeans is not going to start asking whether the oranges come from Jaffa before buying them, so most people don’t see this as a serious issue, but we feel that by allowing this kind of attitude to take hold even for symbolic things is a step in the wrong direction,” a Jewish student activist said.
Another political dispute around the Israel-E.U. agreement has resurfaced in recent weeks. In theory, Israeli imports from the West Bank and Gaza are banned by the accord. However, the Europeans have implicitly agreed not to enforce this provision and allow fruits and dairy products from settlements in the West Bank and Gaza to enter the E.U. Now a growing number of politicians have been asking to strengthen enforcement of the ban.