Academic Fallout From Middle East

British faculty union delegates endorse academic boycott of Israel; U.S. scholars express concern on travel to Iran.
May 31, 2007

Delegates at the annual meeting of Britain's main faculty union on Wednesday voted to circulate to members and divisions a resolution calling for an academic boycott of Israel. While the vote was accompanied by statements from union leaders encouraging the delegates to drop the boycott issue, the pro-boycott could hurt relations between professors' groups in Britain and the United States.

Previous votes by British faculty unions have led American academic groups to take the rare step of rebuking professorial colleagues in another democratic country. Many American faculty unions and scholarly groups, while holding a range of views on Israel and the Middle East, have strongly argued against academic boycotts of any type, saying that they impede the free flow of ideas and that they end up punishing scholars, including the many Israeli professors who are at the forefront of the movement for Palestinian rights.

In a sign of how tense the issue has become, Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate physicist at the University of Texas at Austin, announced this week that he was turning down an invitation to speak at a conference in Britain because of his frustration with attitudes there about Israel.

"I don't want to say I'm cutting ties with the U.K. -- I love England. I just feel personally uncomfortable going with the atmosphere there at the moment. It's increasingly hostile to Israel, especially in the intellectual world," Weinberg told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

On Tuesday night, in an attempt to discourage the British boycott vote, the president of the American Federation of Teachers wrote to the British union expressing concerns on behalf of the 160,000 higher ed members of the AFT. Edward J. McElroy, president of the AFT, used language unusually strong in criticizing another faculty union. "The AFT strongly opposes boycotts of universities and faculty, considering them a grave threat to the democratic values of academic freedom and free speech," he wrote.

"The one-sided nature of the proposed resolution demonstrates that the motivation is to express support for a political position rather than advance the principles of free and open scholarship," he added.

The resolution said that Israeli academics share "complicity" in their government's "occupation" of Palestine and called for a boycott, and for the leaders of their union to raise the moral issues related to the boycott with all divisions and units of the faculty group. The vote of the delegates in favor of the boycott resolution was 158 to 99. Previous votes by delegates have been overturned by a broader vote open to all members, and there is a possibility such a vote may take place again this year.

The British union has no particular power to enforce a boycott, and if history is any indication, many scholars will ignore it, but others will pay attention. Israeli scholars have found themselves uninvited from some conferences or participation in some journals as a result of past boycotts.

The general secretary of the British union, Sally Hunt, tried before the vote to discourage a boycott. "I do not believe a boycott is supported by the majority of UCU members, nor do I believe that members see it is a priority for the union," she said.

In an attempt at moderating the union's stance, it also released a statement on boycotts that said: "It is recognised that this is a difficult area. We are aware of great wrongs being committed throughout the world against colleagues in other countries. But there is always a balance to be drawn between boycotting and damaging those colleagues in the hope that the state will address the harm that it is inflicting on academia, and the harm that the boycott itself inflicts on academia."

Groups of Israeli academics immediately condemned the vote. Ofir Frankel, executive director of the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, which is based at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, said: "It is very disturbing to behold a form of singling out and discrimination happening in the U.K. -- the U.K. which upholds itself as the cradle of fairness, freedom of speech and academic debate."

Concerns About Travel to Iran

Another part of the Middle East is also a source of controversy and concern to American academics this week. The detention of three Iranian-Americans in Iran -- two of them scholars -- has many academic groups alarmed.

The Middle East Studies Association on Tuesday took the unprecedented step for the organization of issuing a "statement of concern" about travel to Iran. The move is significant because the association is made up of members who regularly travel to and work in countries that criticize the United States government, and the scholarly group sees such travel as essential to its members' work.

However, because of the recent detentions of scholars, the association's Committee on Academic Freedom "feels compelled to bring the emerging pattern of grave infringements on academic freedom, scholarly research, and intellectual exchange to the full attention of MESA members and other scholars who may be contemplating travel to Iran," according to a statement issued by the group.

The statement also said that "the Middle East Studies Association of North America is gravely concerned by the escalating pattern of harassment and detention of American academic researchers and scholars by the Iranian government, and believes that there are significant risks for researchers who intend to travel to Iran, especially those holding dual Iranian-American citizenship."


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