In Britain, the two major academic professional groups have been debating Israeli boycott resolutions for the past few months. One group, the Association of University Teachers, passed a pro-boycott resolution a few months ago only to rescind it a few weeks later. This week, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, the largest faculty group voted to endorse a boycott.
I wasn’t going to write about this issue since I’m strongly ambivalent about it. But my brother and I had a spirited argument about it today. He teaches chemistry at Willamette University and usually our Mideast politics are pretty similar. That was what surprised me about his reaction. I thought he’d also be ambivalent. But he wasn’t. He was dead set against it. In fact, his first response to me was that he wasn’t surprised since he thought British academics tended to be anti-Semitic. I thought that a rather wild and unfounded charge. And so our colloquy ensued.
Given this debate, I decided that I should cover this issue. If it got Todd and me so worked up it’s probably worth discussing at greater length.
The NY Times‘ coverage said that the resolution:
called for the organization’s members “to consider their own responsibility for ensuring equity and nondiscrimination in contacts with Israeli educational institutions or individuals,” said Trevor Phillips, an association spokesman.
The text of the resolution noted “continuing Israeli apartheid policies, including construction of the exclusion wall and discriminatory educational practices,” and it urged the association’s members to “consider the appropriateness of a boycott of those that do not publicly dissociate themselves from such policies.”
The resolution’s thrust is to encourage individual academics in Britain to sever professional contact with their counterparts in Israel.
The resolution was “advisory” rather than mandatory, Mr. Phillips said in a telephone interview.
While I feel generally supportive of the Presbyterian Church’s campaign for selective divestment of company’s benefiting from the Israeli Occupation, I’m a bit more ambivalent about an educational boycott since academic freedom holds a spot near and dear to my heart (I spent ten years pursuing undergraduate and graduate studies at several universities, one of which was the Hebrew University).
Reading the portions of the resolution quoted by the Times, resolution supporters’ rhetoric smacks too much of political correctness. It also has the ring of anti-Zionism in it. I think it’s extremely difficult to tar the entire academic spectrum in Israel with a single brush. There are those who adamantly oppose the Occupation and those who favor it. I’d feel far more comfortable if resolution supporters would single out specific researchers or academic programs for sanction based on specific research or projects which have had deleterious impact on Palestinians.
For example, a sociologist, sociologist or anthropologist whose research is used to advance the goals of the Occupation deserves being boycotted. Military researchers whose inventions and technology promote IDF repression of the Palestinian populace would also be another valid target. But how can you assume that an entire nation’s academic community is guilty unless proven innocent?
I’m also a bit uncomfortable with the idea that Israeli professors must publicly proclaim their opposition to Occupation in order to be welcomed back into the British academic community. Wouldn’t it be better to single out the worst offenders within Israeli academe for opprobrium and to single out those whose research has promoted opposition to the Occupation for special praise?
All that being said, I DO feel that Israeli academic institutions have had an entirely too cozy relationship with the Israeli establishment, the government and the IDF. Israeli academics readily and willingly allow their research to be utilized to oppress the Palestinians (I’m thinking here of technical and military research). I personally would welcome Israeli faculty who would publicly voice their opposition to the Occupation if they haven’t already done so. I would welcome those who would consider how their particular research might promote the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Many Israelis already cooperate with Palestinian colleagues on joint research. I’d like to see this trend encouraged and expanded. There should be many opportunities for those in the humanities, social sciences and hard sciences to explore research that opposes the degradation of the Palestinian people. And conversely, there must be opportunities to pursue research that articulates values that will be needed for two warring peoples to live in peace. A literature professor might teach a comparative course on developments in Israeli and Palestinian fiction. A sociologist or anthropologist could do field work in Palestinian villages or better yet, could study say, poverty within Israeli and Palestinian societies. Agricultural scientists could devise research that will jointly and mutually benefit farmers on both sides of the divide. These are but a few ideas spun off the top of my head.
Of course, it’s probable that similar research already takes place and I applaud that. But I’m sure there are many faculty members who’ve not done as much as they could in this regard. If the threat of a boycott gives them a kick in the pants and makes them realize that there is an entirely new potential field of research just outside their doorstep, then kol hakavod.
There is one constant here that must never be forgotten and in this I agree with the British boycott forces: the Occupation is out and out evil. It is time for everyone in Israel to stand up and be counted including the academic elite. You can’t stand by and claim that academic freedom provides you cover for your indifference or outright hostility. Indifference in the face of evil perpetuates an immoral system. It’s high time for Israelis to get off the fence and be counted.
Inside Higher Ed also has an informative article on this subject.