Boycott Backlash

AAUP condemns boycotts -- and faces criticism for invitations to backers of sanctions against Israeli universities.
February 2, 2006

Boycotts of academic institutions are antithetical to academic freedom and should not be used as a means of protest, according to a new policy being adopted by the American Association of University Professors.

The policy follows considerable controversy in the last year over a boycott declared by Britain's main faculty union against two Israeli universities. The AAUP and many other faculty groups condemned the boycott, which was ultimately withdrawn. But tensions over the boycott remain high -- and the AAUP is currently facing criticism for inviting eight prominent backers of the boycott to a small private gathering in Italy this month to discuss academic boycotts.

AAUP officials say that the invitations simply represent the group's commitment to listening to all ideas. But critics say that the association is devaluing its statement by giving legitimacy to those who would seek to isolate Israeli scholars and academics.

While the association's commitment to opposing boycotts is being questioned by some, the statement itself is unequivocal in criticizing them -- even in cases where colleges are located in undemocratic countries or where institutions themselves do not live up to the ideals of free expression.

"Colleges and universities should be what they purport to be: institutions committed to the search for truth and its free expression," the new policy states. "Members of the academic community should feel no obligation to support or contribute to institutions that are not free or that sail under false colors, that is, claim to be free but in fact suppress freedom. Such institutions should not be boycotted. Rather, they should be exposed for what they are, and wherever possible, the continued exchange of ideas should be actively encouraged. The need is always for more academic freedom, not less."

An academic boycott, the policy states, "undermines exactly the freedom one wants to defend" and "takes aim at the wrong target."

The policy also rejects an argument put forth by some defenders of the Israeli boycott that academic freedom concerns could be mitigated by creating a boycott loophole to allow interaction to continue with professors who were sufficiently supportive -- in the boycott organizers' views -- to Palestinian rights. "We especially oppose selective academic boycotts that entail an ideological litmus test," the policy states. "We understand that such selective boycotts may be intended to preserve academic exchange with those more open to the views of boycott proponents, but we cannot endorse the use of political or religious views as a test of eligibility for participation in the academic community."

While the position outlined in the policy is consistent with what the AAUP has said for decades, it is the group's first paper on the topic. While the AAUP has yet to publish the document, it has been approved by the association's Committee A on Academic Freedom and there are no plans to change the policy.

The AAUP policy notes that while the group censures institutions for violating academic freedom, it does not advocate that scholars stop interacting with their colleagues at those colleges. And while the AAUP once endorsed a boycott, it was an economic, not academic, one. In that case, the AAUP in 1985 urged colleges to sell stocks in companies that did business in South Africa without adhering to certain principles. But at no time did the AAUP advocate a cut in ties to South African colleges or academics.

"In protesting against apartheid in South Africa, the AAUP carefully distinguished between economic and academic boycotts largely on matters of principle," the policy states. "Economic boycotts seek to bring pressure to bear on the regime responsible for violations of rights; they are not meant to impair the ability of scholars to write teach, and pursue research, although they may have that result. Academic boycotts, in contrast, strike directly at the free exchange of ideas."

The primary advocates for the boycott of Israel include some leaders of the Association of University Teachers, the main faculty union in Britain. In pushing for the boycott last year, they argued that two Israeli institutions -- Bar-Ilan University and the University of Haifa -- were complicit in Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

Almost as soon as the boycotts were announced, they were widely criticized by academic leaders in the United States and elsewhere. Many professors -- including some who are strongly critical of Israel's government -- said that a boycott didn't make sense given that universities promote the free exchange of ideas and that within Israeli society, many academics are among the leading supporters of Palestinian rights. In fact, a number of Palestinian scholars criticized the boycotts (and a few Israeli scholars supported them).

In Britain, meanwhile, many academics said that the union vote for the boycott took place without many professors participating. Facing all of the criticism, the union held another vote in May and revoked the boycotts. Leaders of the pro-boycott movement did not respond to requests for comment about the AAUP document, but their Web sites outline their views and forums have been organized at British universities in the last month to discuss reviving the boycott, with some suggesting that Hebrew University of Jerusalem be added to the boycott list.

The AAUP statement appears to be almost entirely consistent with the views of boycott opponents in Britain and the United States. But online discussions among boycott opponents have been full of criticism of the association over this month's meeting about academic boycotts. With support from the Ford, Rockefeller and Nathan Cummings Foundations, the AAUP has invited 22 scholars to Bellagio, the conference center in northern Italy, to discuss academic boycotts.

Boycott critics are upset that at least 8 of the 22 participants are strong proponents of a complete academic boycott of Israel, and that they were all strong defenders of the British faculty union's original stand. The critics are also angry that many prominent opponents of the British union's boycott were not invited to the meeting.

Jon Pike, a senior lecturer in political philosophy at Britain's Open University, wrote to the AAUP to express "very serious concerns" about the invitations. "Why do you weight the conference so strongly to the very small minority who are strong opposed to the AAUP's position?" he asked. Pike went on to say of the panel that it was "terribly skewed towards marginal, unrepresentative, and absolutist positions, now widely discredited in the UK."

Pike published his criticisms on the Web site of Engage, a group formed in Britain to oppose the boycott. (He also posted replies from the AAUP, which noted, among other things, that some of the Palestinian critics of the boycott cited by Pike had been invited, but decided not to attend.)

Another leading critic of the boycotts -- Emanuele Ottolenghi -- criticized the AAUP invitations in an interview Wednesday. Ottolenghi is a research fellow on Israeli law, politics and society at the University of Oxford, and he wrote to boycott organizers last year urging them to add his name to their boycott list as long as they were shunning scholars in Israel.

Ottolenghi said he could understand why the AAUP might invite one or two boycott supporters to the meeting to so that their ideas could be heard. But he said that by giving boycott supporters such a significant share of participation, the AAUP was elevating the legitimacy of "people who on a false agenda of liberty and human rights are trying to silence people." Some ideas, he said (citing denial of the Holocaust as an example), do not deserve to be debated on equal terms, and he said that the idea that academics who work in certain countries should be cut off from the academic community because of their government's views was such an idea.

While Ottolenghi is a strong supporter of Israel, he said that the leaders of the British boycott movement not only tried to take away his right to hold his views, but that they also attempted to impose views on the large majority of British academics who aren't consumed with the politics of the Middle East or who -- even if they feel passionately about the Middle East -- want their union to focus on other issues.

"I think the union should battle for better salaries for academics," Ottolenghi said.

Some professors in Israel who have been working against the boycott are also angry over the invitation list to the AAUP event. Gerald M. Steinberg, director of the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation at Bar-Ilan University, said that the AAUP was creating a forum for "the demonization of Israel" and failing to recognize that some of those it was inviting were using the boycott as "a vehicle" to attack Israel.

Several of those invited to the conference did not respond to messages.

Roger Bowen, general secretary of the AAUP, defended the invitations, noting that many boycott critics would be present, and that the association was coming down strongly on their side. "It always shocks me when people are fearful about hearing the thoughts and ideas of those with whom they disagree. The AAUP does not boycott ideas and i think this conference is simply a reminder of that. We believe in the free and honest exchange of views and that's what we are doing here."

Bowen said that there was no danger that the presence of all of the boycott supporters would shift the association's position. "The statement is the statement," he said.

The AAUP is "confident enough" in its ideals, he said, to talk with people with whom it disagrees. "I'd rather have a dialogue than a monologue," Bowen said. "We already know what we think."


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