British-born Academic Sent to U.K. to Fight University Boycott

Daphna Berman
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Daphna Berman

The anti-Israel boycott movement in the U.K. has woken up Britain's Jewish community, Israel's new official academic representative in the U.K. on the issue said during a recent interview.

"They are more laid back than the American Jewish community, and the boycott was the straw that broke the back of the camel. They've poured in their resources," Prof. David Newman characterized the British Jewish community. "There has been a gradual growth in anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment. It's been a war of attrition, another bit here, another bit there. But the proposal of the [University and College Union], the fact that it was aimed at universities - a place for open, liberal discourse - this really woke them up."

Jewish communal organizations like BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, "have been given a new lease on life by becoming active in the boycott issue," Newman said. The professor of political geography at Be'er Sheva's Ben-Gurion University of the Negev will be moving to Britain for his new posting.

Newman was the only Israeli academic to attend the UCU Annual Conference in Bournemouth, England, in May where the boycott motion was passed. He led the opposition to the proposal.

In his new position, Newman will be the on-the-ground coordinator of the anti-boycott project and work on behalf of the Israeli academic community. He aims to forge contacts for joint Israeli-British conferences, research projects and scientific collaborations. He will endeavor to ensure that Israelis are invited to and participate in British academic conferences and that they continue to seek academic postings for sabbaticals in the U.K. in departments ranging from biotechnology to Jewish studies.

"We feel there is a window of opportunity. Beyond the unions, there is good will toward Israeli universities and we need to use that to our advantage," Newman said. "We want to use the window of opportunity to develop stronger ties and further links between the two academic communities," he said. "The worst is for Israeli academics to say, 'why should we go to the UK when there is that kind of atmosphere. I'll go to North America instead.' But that's self-implementing a boycott where even the pro-boycott forces weren't able to succeed." Born, raised and educated in England, Newman is keenly familiar with British academia and says his accent "absolutely helps" the position. He has degrees from the University of London and from Durham University and is editor of the international quarterly Geopolitics. He will be teaching at the University of London this year.

Newman says that anti-Israel sentiment in Britain today has increased in the past 10 years but insists that the situation is not as bad as Israelis or the American Jewish community believe. "Hitler is not knocking on the door here. Jews aren't being physically threatened," he said. "But there is something happening."

In the new position, Newman will work under the aegis of the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom. His appointment was agreed last month at a meeting of representatives from the foreign and education ministries and from Israeli universities.

"We've had the Israeli embassy and the Jewish community, but not someone in the Israeli university world, despite the fact that it was academics that were being targeted," Newman said about the appointment. "We felt there needs to be an Israeli academic response and not just a response from the Jewish community."

Newman insists that the boycott movement has essentially failed and that the possibility of a real academic boycott is "minimal" despite the noise and media attention the movement continues to receive. "The pro-boycotters failed in the sense that they have not been able to implement any significant boycott as such and never will be [able to]." According to Newman, the boycott cannot succeed because those behind it are "junior academic[s]" who do not have the support of more senior professors and researchers at their respective universities, who "don't have time for union politics."

Still, he worries about what the boycott means for students and for the careers of younger, less established academics. "When we try to send doctoral and post-doctoral Israeli students [to the U.K.], we will often get a polite letter that there are only five slots available for 20 applicants," he said. "Ninety-nine times out of 100, it's a legitimate response because of scarce resources. But you never know if one or two times, it's because someone in the department doesn't want an Israeli academic. We're worried not about an open boycott, but about a silent boycott at a junior level."

Newman admits that the anti-boycott movement has failed to curb anti-Israel sentiment, which continues to flourish in British academic, but says that was not its aim. "It's not about Israel right or wrong. The anti-boycott movement needs to focus on the denial of academic freedom, liberal space and dialogue," Newman said. He remains optimistic and believes that the Israeli ambassador-elect to Britain, Ron Prosor has the potential to effect "huge change." The Foreign Ministry, Newman says, is "sending an excellent ambassador this time around."



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