It is possible to be a lefty Zionist, says BGU prof

As a sign ‘from above,’ Prof. David Newman is awarded an OBE for promoting academic links between Israel and the UK

Prof. David Newman in front of Windsor Castle. (photo credit: courtesy)
Prof. David Newman in front of Windsor Castle. (photo credit: courtesy)

LONDON – In recent years, many Israeli academics have told Prof. David Newman they do not want to lecture in the UK or spend their sabbatical there: They worry it is not easy to be Jewish or Israeli on UK university campuses. He has a stark warning for them.

“I tell them they mustn’t look at it that way,” says Newman, dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. “They’ll be effectively implementing the boycott when the Brits are unable to do it.”

This month, Newman was given an OBE (Order of the British Empire), one of the UK’s highest honors, for promoting academic links between the two countries. He is clearly still on a high from the ceremony at Windsor Castle, which he says was full of pomp and circumstance, “very British and impressive,” and only has one minor gripe – that the Queen, on holiday in Scotland, skipped the event, and instead sent her daughter Princess Anne to (quite literally) do the honors.

Nevertheless, he is clear that the award was not just personal but a deliberate statement by the British government, particularly in light of the Commander of the British Empire (CBE) given to the University of Oxford’s Prof. Raymond Dwek for UK-Israel scientific collaboration, just a few months ago.

“Even if it is critical of Israel, [the government] differentiates between science and politics,” he says. “It’s a statement that it does not support boycotts.”

The two people who have been “most positive” about building academic links are the British ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, and his predecessor Sir Tom Phillips, he says.

“Phillips got the ball rolling, and Matthew, since the day he’s been there, said he’s going to promote ties, and has been very actively involved.”

London-born Newman, 57, became immersed in the boycott issue in 2006, when he took a two-year sabbatical in the UK. The boycott effort was then gaining momentum, and he was tapped to informally lead the Israeli universities’ response. Following discussions with university vice-chancellors, he “suddenly clicked” that the most appropriate reaction would be to promote academic links between British and Israeli institutions.

While he says it is difficult to quantify, the levels of cooperation are still not terribly high – mostly individuals and research projects rather than academic agreements between universities. One important vehicle for promoting ties is the Britain Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership (BIRAX), which he helped set up, and is sponsored by both the Israeli and British governments. It is managed through the offices of the British Council in Israel with initial seed funding through private philanthropy, notably the Pears Foundation.

Its initial focus has been on bringing Israeli and UK scientists together, particularly in the field of regenerative medicine, but in the past two years Newman has headed the Israeli team trying to push links in the humanities and social sciences.

Sir Bob Geldof KBE and Prof. David Newman at the 41st Annual Board of Governors Meeting in 2011. (photo credit: Shay Shmueli © Ben-Gurion University of the Negev)
Sir Bob Geldof KBE and Prof. David Newman at the 41st Annual Board of Governors Meeting in 2011. (photo credit: Shay Shmueli © Ben-Gurion University of the Negev)

Newman regards this as particularly important, because “this shifts the focus from the hard empirical sciences to important areas of ethics, history and philosophy – the very core raison d’etre of what universities are about. If Israel desires to have new Bubers and Magnes in the future, it is essential to strengthen the links in the often neglected humanities.”

However, he acknowledges that this is politically more difficult: “It’s not easy because more of the criticism of Israel comes from these quarters.”

What many people do not understand, he says, is that the discussion about academic boycott is not taking place in the universities, but in the academic trade unions, and even there it is being pushed only by a small group of activists.

“95 percent of the boycott debate is a lot of air, 5% is motions by individuals, not institutions,” he says. “You can’t ignore it, but it’s not institutional or widespread.”

The most the trade union activists can hope to achieve is to pass a motion recommending that universities boycott Israel, but the chances of the universities ever implementing a boycott is zero. They depend on funding from the European Union, which has made it clear that they will not give money to institutions that are discriminatory.

’95 percent of the boycott debate is a lot of air, 5% is motions by individuals, not institutions’

“Most university vice-chancellors just want the issue to go away,” he says.

As government funding for British universities drops and they need to raise their own money for research, “they want the best people and partners for joint research projects, and Israel is in the top 10,” he says. “There are lots of people in lots of different disciplines who want to work with Israeli partners.”

But this does not mean that the pro-boycott camp is ineffective. In addition to the Israelis who are deterred from visiting the UK, Newman says that it is impossible to gauge the extent to which there is a “silent boycott” – that is, institutions or individuals who decide to avoid contact with Israelis but never declare their bias.

“A university committee might have to decide between 10 brilliant candidates for a post-doc position,” he gives an example. “There might be people around that table in favour of a boycott who would vote against an Israeli candidate or people who are not interested in the political debate, but don’t want the trouble [that the boycott advocates will cause]. We can never know if it’s going on or not.”

In Israel, he says that several candidates for promotion or tenure have told him that they have not published enough because of the boycott.

“Nine times out of 10 it’s not true, but sometimes maybe it is,” he says. “There’s a lot of grey area.”

British physicist Stephen Hawking attends a conference with Israeli high school students at the Bloomfield Museum of Science in Jerusalem December 10, 2006 (photo credit: Orel Cohen/Flash90)
British physicist Stephen Hawking attends a conference with Israeli high school students at the Bloomfield Museum of Science in Jerusalem December 10, 2006 (photo credit: Orel Cohen/Flash90)

Over the past year, two factors have made the debate more difficult, he believes. One is scientist Stephen Hawking’s decision in May to pull out of the Presidential Conference in Israel following pressure from boycott advocates. The second is the Israeli government’s decision to upgrade the Ariel University Center of Samaria, in a West Bank settlement, to the status of a full-fledged university.

This has considerably complicated the argument often used by those countering the boycott, that all of Israel’s universities are inside the Green Line and that the boycott has nothing to do with helping Palestinians, he argues. Newman charges the government with taking the decision for political reasons, on the eve of an election, and says it spurred on the European Union to advance guidelines that will block funding to any Israeli institution that is either located or maintains links over the Green Line.

Just how much awareness is there of the Ariel decision in the UK, though?

“In every second conversation, people say this,” says Newman, who still visits the UK regularly (often to watch his beloved Tottenham Hotspur football team). “Even people who don’t necessarily take positions on these things – if they don’t know, people make sure they know.”

What complicates the issue even further is that by Newman’s own admission, “Half of Israel’s faculty, the center/center-left, won’t have anything to do with Ariel. No one describes it as a boycott, it’s on an individual basis.”

Prof. David Newman receives the OBE from Princess Anne. (photo credit: courtesy)
Prof. David Newman receives the OBE from Princess Anne. (photo credit: courtesy)

Arguing against a boycott from the outside, when his colleagues seem to be implementing one themselves, is “very problematic,” he says. “It’s a dilemma.”

It is unclear whether Newman himself boycotts Ariel; asked whether he avoids it on principle, he declines to comment, but says he has come out against its new status for both political and academic reasons.

Newman made aliyah in 1982, after obtaining a Ph.D in geography from the University of Durham. He initially worked in the geography departments of Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion universities, but in 1988 he founded and became first chairperson of Ben-Gurion’s Department of Politics and Government.

Nowadays Newman, who has a weekly column in The Jerusalem Post, is about to start his second three-year term as dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences – the largest faculty in Israel – and the university is in the process of establishing a chair of Geopolitics for him.

Firmly on the left, he has been involved in track-two negotiations with the Palestinians for two decades.

‘I’m very proud to be Zionist but left-wing’

In recent years, the department he founded was subject of a protracted and ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the government’s Council for Higher Education to shut it down, following a report claiming that it had too strong an emphasis on “political activism” and allegations by activists on the right that it had an “anti-Zionist” bias.

“I’m very critical of the right-wing for trying to silence political debate in Israel, it causes harm to Israel,” says Newman. “They say they’re the patriots, but they’re causing damage by trying to silence voices and to shut down departments. I’m very proud to be Zionist but left-wing.”

This is one of the reasons he is determined to be active against the boycott.

“The right-wing would like to present [the boycott attempts] as being just as much the fault of the left-wing in Israel. I’m not allowing them to do that,” he says, although he concedes: “Ariel makes it more difficult.”

The Ariel decision is currently being examined by the High Court, but Newman expects it to be overturned only if there is proof of a technical or procedural problem. In the meanwhile, he believes the Israeli government could be far more forceful pushing back against the academic boycott, for example by employing culture and scientific attachés in their embassies.

“The foreign ministry should at the very least institute one in North America, and one in Europe,” he says. “Not a diplomat, but someone who knows the university world, like commercial attachés, who are people from the business world who are seconded to the foreign office. Their sole job would be to push scientific and academic links.”

Ultimately, however, he believes this is a fight Israel is winning.

“There is always a lot of discussion of the boycott, but it’s discussion 95% of the time rather than real action,” he says. “The majority of people don’t see it affecting them, and yet there have been cases, and people who believe it has affected them. The bigger picture is that it has not impacted in a major way.”

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