In the face of Israel’s well-funded campaign against supporters of Palestine and BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), Ireland remains a relatively comfortable base for conducting Palestine solidarity campaigns. In other countries pro-Palestine activists have been put under pressure and many universities have successfully silenced such activism by firing pro-Palestine professors (such as Steven Salaita and Norman Finkelstein) and canceling conferences about Palestine. By contrast, in Ireland, until the March 2017 conference in University College Cork where the university imposed severe limitations on the organizers, conferences on Palestine have gone ahead with the support of universities and university teachers unions (Teachers’ Union of Ireland and Irish Federation of University Teachers). Irish people clearly understand the implications of settler colonialism and Palestinians appreciate Irish people’s support.
This paper briefly charts the history of the relations between Ireland and the Palestine question. I then use the September 2017 conference ‘Freedom of speech and Higher Education: The case of the academic boycott of Israel’ held in Trinity College Dublin to highlight the extent of Zionist interference and concomitant university support. I conclude with a brief outline of the work of Academics for Palestine, of which I am the chair.
Ireland and the question of Palestine
Around Christmas 2017, while visiting Irish peacekeeping troops in south Lebanon, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar criticised Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem as a “misstep” and the “wrong long-term decision”. The Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter writes that despite agreeing with the UN vote to condemn the U.S. action, the Taoiseach’s statement was not enough. Ferriter writes in The Irish Times that it is now time for Ireland to recognize Palestine in order not only to rectify historic injustice, but also to “provide the best means of ensuring the long-term peace and security of both Israel and Palestine.”
In “Ireland and the Palestine Question: 1948-2004,” historian Rory Miller documents Ireland’s relationship with Israel and Palestine. The pre-1948 Jewish underground forces in Palestine modeled themselves on the IRA’s anti-British struggle. While Yizhak Shamir’s nom de guerre was Michael, after Michael Collins, there was reciprocal sympathy in Ireland for the establishment of the Jewish state. According to Miller, Israel hoped for Ireland’s “intuitive understanding of the Jewish-Israeli predicament” and support for what it saw as its struggle for survival and security, and since the establishment of the Israeli embassy in 1993, Israel’s ambassadors emphasized the similarities between Ireland and Israel.
Miller argues there is no overt anti-Semitism in Ireland, but I wonder whether the fact that the Republic only allowed 60 Jewish refugees from Nazism to settle in Ireland between 1933 and 1946, a sorry chapter in Ireland’s refugee policies documented in Louis Lentin’s 1997 documentary No More Blooms, was due to Irish Catholic and state anti-Semitism.
That said, Ireland regarded Israel as an underdog under attack during the 1967 war, following which Ireland’s foreign minister Frank Aiken worked hard to get the UN to take into account Israeli concerns in its resolutions on the conflict, leading Israel’s foreign minister Abba Eban to call on other UN member states to follow the example of his ‘friend’ Aiken. But overall, Miller argues that the Irish refused to translate the kinship between the Irish and the Jews into political support for the Jewish state, as Ireland, and in particular the Republican movement, was increasingly supportive of Palestine. While critical of Irish parliamentarians’ unquestioning opposition to Israel’s human rights infringements and support for Palestine, Miller admits that “compared to those of other countries, the Irish government’s official statements about Israel are never extremely abusive.” He notes the influence of the Irish army participation in UNIFIL in southern Lebanon as a major source of conflict between Ireland and Israel, and the role of NGOs including Trocaire, Christian Aid and the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign – the latter now one of the 20 NGOs banned from entering Israel and Palestine – in mobilizing support for Palestinians under occupation and siege and in promoting the BDS campaign. Miller also notes the high level of economic and research and development collaboration between Ireland and Israel, a focus of the Irish BDS campaign. Writing in 2005, Miller could not know how successful the academic boycott of Israeli universities would be. Academics for Palestine’s boycott pledge has now been signed by more than 220 academics working in Ireland.
Palestine and Irish universities
Contrary to the situation in the U.S., the UK and several European countries, and despite the high level of collaboration between Israel and Ireland in joint research and development projects, some of them in relation to security equipment and armament, Irish universities have been hospitable to pro-Palestine research and conferences until recently. I have run several conferences and seminars on Palestine, including “Palestine as state of exception: A Global Paradigm” at Trinity College in 2006, which resulted in the edited collection “Thinking Palestine.” Academics for Palestine have brought over several Palestinian and anti-Zionist Israeli speakers to Irish universities attracting substantial audiences. Until the 2017 conference “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism,” rescheduled after being cancelled by the University of Southampton and having to comply with several health and safety demands due to Zionist pressure, work on Palestine did not encounter opposition by Irish universities.
The pressure on the UCC conference organizers was the result of Israel investing heavily in its campaign against criticism and against BDS, a campaign that did not succeed in damaging the 2017 Trinity College conference, despite the attempt by the Israeli Association of University Heads to persuade the Trinity College provost to denounce the conference.
The demand for balance was the major way in which Zionist actors sought to derail the conference. The organizing committee decided in advance not to accept papers that argued pro- or anti-boycott positions as this was off-topic in a conference primarily discussing academic freedom, with particular reference to the neoliberal university and to academic precarity. Despite making this explicit in the call for papers, we inevitably got several anti-boycott abstracts as well as one pro-boycott one. The anti-boycott abstracts were clearly sub- standard and we found out later why they were so bad – they were sent at the last minute in response to a secret call by the Israeli Association of University Heads with the aim of packing the conference with anti-boycott papers.
It was testament to the relevance of this conference that the Israeli Association of University Heads chose to coordinate a political campaign to undermine and sabotage it. What followed demonstrated how the demand for balance is used to attack academic freedom. After the conference, the Israeli Association of University Heads wrote to the Trinity College Provost demanding that the university disassociate itself from the conference, which, they argued, was “unbalanced,” not only because we rejected these substandard and irrelevant papers, but also because, according to the Association, most speakers supported the international BDS campaign against Israel. We obviously had not conducted such a McCarthyist headcount, but it was unsurprising that there were not more speakers supporting Palestinian rights at such a conference than what the Israeli Association of University Heads found acceptable. The demand for “balance” in this context was an attempt to both prevent ideas from being discussed freely and prevent academics that Zionists disagreed with from gathering. As it happened, the Trinity provost – though refusing our demands to end the university’s collaboration with Israeli universities in research and development projects – refused to heed the absurd demands of the Israeli Association of University Heads.
Conclusion: Irish politics, Academics for Palestine, BDS and the academic boycott
Some six months before the conference, a talk by Israel’s ambassador to Ireland in Trinity College was cancelled after pro-Palestine student activists blocked the entrance to the hall where it was supposed to take place and sang anti-Israeli songs, an act criticized by both the university authorities and by the embassy of Israel. This is just one act of solidarity among many by pro-Palestine activists in Ireland, where the flag of Palestine had been hoisted over the Dublin City Hall and over several other municipal buildings.
This month, independent Senator Frances Black plans to re-table the Control of Economic Activities (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018, which was frozen by Seanad Éireann in January 2018 due to Israeli pressure, though the Irish government vowed to revisit and possibly support it before the parliament’s summer break, if “there is no significant progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.” The bill seeks to prohibit the import and sale of goods, services and natural resources originating in illegal settlements in occupied territories everywhere, deemed illegal under both international humanitarian law and domestic Irish law, and result in human rights violations on the ground. The legislation was prepared with the support of Trócaire, Christian-Aid and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), and applies to the Israeli occupation and expansion of settlements in the Palestinian ‘West Bank’, which have been repeatedly condemned as illegal by the UN, EU, the International Court of Justice and the Irish Government.
Last week, Academics for Palestine – a group of academics working in Ireland and committed to supporting Palestinian academics and universities and to promoting the academic boycott of Israel – hosted a talk by Shawan Jabarin, director of Al Haq, Palestine’s largest and oldest human rights organization, titled “The Great March of Return, Israel’s Assault on Gaza and the Struggle for Justice in Palestine.” Jabarin, who graduated from the Irish Centre of Human Rights (at the National University of Ireland Galway), where he completed the LL.M program in 2004-05, supported by a grant from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs Irish Aid program, was in Ireland to support Senator Black’s proposed anti settlement products bill.
Academics for Palestine follows the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) guidelines. PACBI was initiated in 2004 to contribute to the struggle for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality by advocating a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions due to their deep and persistent complicity in Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights that are stipulated in international law. Crucially the academic boycott is not aimed at boycotting individual Israeli academics, but rather academic institutions. To those who argue that among Israeli academics are many dissidents and critics of the state’s policies, we say that first, Israeli academic institutions are deeply implicated in the occupation of Palestine, in developing arms and security equipment, in providing special tuition programs for security and military personnel and in discriminating against Palestinian students and academics, and second, that most Israeli academics enjoy privileges denied to their Palestinian colleagues. Together with groups of Students for Justice for Palestine, we call upon Irish universities to end their collaboration with Israel in joint research and development projects. Like other civil society groups throughout Ireland, we aim to continue in Ireland’s proud record of having boycotted Apartheid South Africa, and through promoting the academic boycott, we call to attention Israel’s racial regime of segregation, siege and occupation.
Ronit Lentin is a retired associate professor of Sociology at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Follow Ronit on Twitter at ronitlentin.