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Both sides have an interest in making BDS bigger than it is

Anatomy of a rumor: London U says Hebrew year abroad not nixed, despite reports

After online criticism over dorms on ‘occupied territory,’ Dr. Yair Wallach claps back at wagging tongues on both sides of the political divide, says language program will continue

London University's School of Oriental and African Studies. (Google street view)
London University's School of Oriental and African Studies. (Google street view)

LONDON — A claim about the closure of London University’s Hebrew Year Abroad program made by two British groups on opposite sides of the Zionist question has been summarily dismissed.

Claims from both pro-Israel activists and supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that London University canceled its course because the program is held on “occupied territory” has been dismissed as “ridiculous” by Dr. Yair Wallach, chair of the school’s Center for Jewish Studies.

The Jewish studies department is part of the university’s School of Oriental and African studies, or SOAS.

An SOAS statement said that the program is being relocated from Jerusalem to Haifa as a three-year contract with Hebrew University comes to an end.

“We decided to move our provider to Haifa University after this coming academic year, as it offered a better option due to the structure of the program and issues around students’ welfare. An agreement was signed with Haifa to provide Year Abroad for SOAS Hebrew students for the next five years,” said a university spokesperson. (Due to COVID the program won’t begin until 2021.)

The statements come in the wake of a controversy surrounding the program that got its start on the UK-based website Open Democracy on August 3.

The site, which frequently features writers fiercely critical of Israel, published a report claiming that students who take part in partner programs at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University “usually stay in halls of residence in a Palestinian area of Jerusalem illegally occupied by Israeli settlers.” The article quoted former participants of partner programs at Hebrew University who claimed that they felt “betrayed” and “resented being used as a tool for the legitimisation of the occupation.”

Dr. Yair Wallach, chair of the Center for Jewish Studies at London University’s School for Oriental and African Studies. (Courtesy SOAS)

On August 12, pro-Israel watchdog group Israel Academia Monitor — which claims to “expose anti-Israel activities of Israeli academics” — said in a Facebook post that Wallach, with one of the lecturers in his department, Dr. Tamar Drukker, had “succumbed to Palestinian pressure” in terminating the agreement with Hebrew University.

In addition, the post said, Wallach had proposed “two alternative options” for the Hebrew course — namely, Birzeit University near Ramallah, and Al-Quds University in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis.

“Wallach and Drukker provided the Academic Board [of SOAS] with a misleading proposal as if it was possible to teach Hebrew at Palestinian universities, that are in fact, no-go areas for Israelis,” said the post. It also claimed that Wallach “provided the Board [of SOAS] with false and politically motivated information.”

A SOAS spokesperson dismissed the report and told The Times of Israel, “No member of the SOAS Center for Jewish Studies has ever suggested moving the program to Birzeit or Al-Quds University.”

However, following the Facebook post by Israel Academia Monitor, student activist group the Pinsker Center, along with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris, denounced the SOAS for ending its contract with Hebrew University.

Illustrative: Israeli politician Dan Meridor, left, onstage at a highly protested event put on the the Pinsker Center at King’s College London, February 13, 2018. (Courtesy Pinsker Centre)

In response to queries from The Times of Israel, the Pinsker Center issued a statement: “The report by Open Democracy and the statements officially attributed to SOAS depict a university that has given in to pressure by a national coordinated campaign titled ‘Apartheid Off Campus’ which seeks to cancel all ties between UK universities and the Hebrew University on the basis of dubious claims that the university is violating international law.”

Acknowledging that “conflicting narratives have since emerged,” the Pinsker Center nevertheless insisted that “in this context, SOAS has a duty to the public to clarify whether it conceded to student pressure from a minority group of activists which seek to discriminate against Israeli academic institutions.”

The plot thickens

On August 17, Wiesenthal Center director Dr. Shimon Samuels wrote a letter to UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson based on the Israel Academia Monitor post that claimed the Hebrew program at SOAS had been terminated and the university had succumbed to pro-Palestinian pressure.

Wallach tweeted a response to the rumors, calling them “nonsense and lies,” and then issued a further tweet criticizing an English language Israeli media outlet for running a “false and misleading story” without asking the SOAS for comment.

Wallach, who has led the Center for Jewish Studies at the SOAS for a decade, told The Times of Israel that “the Year Abroad program has been the target of BDS campaigners for years as the most obvious sign of cooperation between Britain and Israeli universities.”

“I decided I only wanted to respond, not ideologically or politically, but as the convenor of Hebrew programming at SOAS, and to make sure that Hebrew remained viable,” he said.

Wallach said his idea was “to force the BDS people to understand the implications of what they were asking. If they wanted to stop Hebrew, they had to say so — and they don’t want to say that.”

Wallach said that when critics express displeasure at SOAS cooperation with Israeli universities, he has asked them to suggest alternatives. It was in this context, he said, that the ideas of Birzeit and Al-Quds Universities came up. He and Drukker were aware that there was no possibility of running a Hebrew program in either place, but committed themselves to presenting these ideas to London University’s academic board — while showing how neither was realistic.

At the end of July, Drukker voluntarily accepted a financial package and retired from SOAS, a move that both she and Wallach told The Times of Israel she had been considering for three years. A replacement lecturer has now been appointed.

Illustrative: Students seen at the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, October 27, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASh90)

Wallach further addressed pro-Israel critics who claimed that he had said the Hebrew University campus was on “occupied territory.” Wallach said that he had been quoting complainants opposed to any deal with any Israeli university. There was also opposition to the partnership with Haifa University, he said, though it wasn’t sustained by the academic board.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, academic programming at the SOAS has been streamlined, and so-called “small languages” such as Hebrew and Persian have been consolidated into a more general degree course for which the SOAS is still accepting applications through September 1. Languages such as Arabic and Chinese remain taught separately.

The Hebrew Year Abroad component, which Wallach said he considers a crucial part of the studies, remains in place.

“Both sides are feeding off each other,” Wallach told The Times of Israel. “The BDS people are claiming victory from the outside. The Israel supporters are saying that BDS won. In fact, both sides have an interest in making BDS bigger than it is. That’s the irony.”

Prior to publication of this article, the SOAS told The Times of Israel that “we sent [our explanatory] statement to Dr. Shimon Samuels of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and received a response that they are delighted that the Hebrew exchange program will continue in Haifa.”

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