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Truthdigger of the Week: History Professor Catherine Hall, Who Rejected Prize From Israel

Posted on May 28, 2016

    British historian Catherine Hall. (British Library)

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

Catherine Hall, who has been professor of modern British social and cultural history at University College London (UCL) since 2009, made headlines this week for her refusal of the Dan David Prize, a prestigious Israeli academic award. Headlines ranged from “Historian snubs $1 million Israeli academic prize” to the more clearly politically charged “Feminist totally occupied by Palestine.”

The Dan David Prize is awarded every year by the Dan David Foundation, an organization named for an Israeli businessman and philanthropist who made his fortune with photo booths. It is given out in three categories—past, present and future—and each award amounts to $1 million, although it can be divided by several recipients in the same category, as was the case this year.

While Hall had turned down the award in March—after being notified of her selection a month earlier—most of the media attention on her decision came after her absence from Sunday’s two-hour ceremony, at which several other Britons and Americans received awards. Many well-known figures have previously received the Dan David Prize, including: former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (whom many will remember for his eagerness to involve the U.K. in the Iraq War, despite the British population’s resounding lack of support); former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; the cellist Yo-Yo Ma; and the writer Margaret Atwood.

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Because of Hall’s refusal to accept the prize, the Dan David Foundation announced that the cash award—amounting to about $330,000—would be divided into several scholarships.

The Independent reports:

Ariel David from the foundation’s administrative board said: “This will give Israelis of all backgrounds, whether Jewish or Arab, as well as international scholars, the opportunity to meet at this beautiful campus and engage in academic discussion, research and discovery.”

Hall is a renowned feminist historian and activist known for pioneering research on women’s history in the 1970s, as well as for her work on race and slavery and her involvement in the women’s rights movement. Her most recent research focuses on British imperialism, according to her UCL profile:

Catherine Hall’s research focuses on re-thinking the relation between Britain and its empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She is particularly interested in the ways in which empire impacted upon metropolitan life, how the empire was lived ‘at home’, and how English identities, both masculine and feminine, were constituted in relation to the multiple ‘others’ of the empire. Civilising Subjects looks at the process of mutual constitution, both of colonizer and colonized, in England and Jamaica in the period between the 1830s and the 1860s. Catherine’s recent book, Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain (2012), focuses on the significance of the Macaulays, father and son, in defining the parameters of nation and empire in the early nineteenth century.

In a statement published by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP), Hall said:

My statement is that I have withdrawn from the prize—this was an independent political choice, undertaken after many discussions with those who are deeply involved with the politics of Israel-Palestine, but with differing views as to how best to act.

It is widely believed that Hall spoke with the representatives of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which is rapidly gaining support around the world in academic and non-academic spheres. The movement, which aims to put an end to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, describes itself as follows, according to the Palestinian BDS National Committee’s website:

In 2005, Palestinian civil society issued a call for a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights. A truly global movement against Israeli Apartheid is rapidly emerging in response to this call.

READ ALSO: Chris Hedges: Why I Support the BDS Movement Against Israel

In addition, according to The Times of Israel:

[BRICUP] said that Hall’s stance was reinforced by a decision from Hebrew University professor David Shulman, who last week chose to donate the NIS 75,000 ($20,000) he won for the Israel Prize to Ta’ayush, an Israeli NGO that works with Palestinians in the West Bank. He was awarded the prize for his work on Indian languages and culture.

Richard Seaford, a BRICUP member and professor emeritus of classics at the University of Exeter, said the “illegal colonisation and the repressive measures of the Israeli government have now irredeemably tarnished Israel’s ‘glittering prizes.’ ” He added: “For academics outside Israel, boycott of all activities relating to the Israeli state and universities is rapidly becoming the default position.”

BRICUP has lauded Hall’s decision to reject the hefty cash prize as “a significant endorsement of the campaign to end ties with Israeli institutions,” noting their admiration of the academic for having “placed principle above financial gain.”

For her taking a political stance on one of the most important and controversial conflicts of our time and for putting her respect for Palestinians before career advancement or economic gain, Catherine Hall is our Truthdigger of the Week.

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