In the end, no one will be going to Bellagio.
The American Association of University Professors in February postponed an international conference on academic boycotts that was scheduled to take place that month in Italy. Both the participant list for the invitation-only session and the materials distributed for the session had come under fire. AAUP officials defended the invite list (which was criticized as anti-Israel by some) and apologized for including in conference packets an anti-Semitic article published in a magazine affiliated with Holocaust deniers.
With AAUP board members and the foundations that were paying for the conference all urging postponement, the association announced it would do just that, but vowed to regroup and hold the session.
But in a letter sent last week to conference participants, association leaders said that they could not go ahead with the conference. The organizers wanted to hold the conference with the original invitees, but realized, the letter said, that such a course of action would "reactivate opposition that has proved too severe to enable us to go forward." So instead, no conference will be held, but written comments prepared by the invitees for the meeting will be published by the AAUP in Academe, its magazine.
The idea behind the conference grew out of debates over a movement last year by Britain’s main faculty union to boycott two Israeli universities. The AAUP and many other academic groups criticized the boycott as antithetical to academic freedom and the boycott was eventually rescinded. In the wake of that controversy, the AAUP started drafting a statement about academic boycotts (strongly opposing them) and organizing the conference, which was to have been held at Bellagio, in Italy, where 22 scholars from around the world were to have gathered to discuss academic boycotts.
Criticism of the conference initially focused on those 22 scholars, a number of whom were active in the movement in Britain to boycott the Israeli universities. The critics said it didn't make sense for a conference trying to outline an intellectual viewpoint against boycotts to include prominent supporters of just the kinds of boycotts it was trying to discourage. AAUP officials, however, defended the invitations, saying it was appropriate to talk to all parties.
Privately, some backers of the conference characterized the controversy as primarily the result of pro-Israel activists working to discredit the meeting. While some pro-Israeli scholars spoke out against the conference, others who questioned the way the conference was organized are in fact critical of the government there and are not involved in pro-Israel activism.
The letter announcing that the conference would not be held at all defended the original invitation list and said it would be wrong to alter the list now.
"Opposition to the conference as originally planned, from those who claimed it focused unduly and unfairly on the Middle East, was intense even prior to our inadvertent and careless inclusion of a paper from an anti-Semitic Web site. Our error, though quickly discovered and corrected by us, was then effectively cited by those, within and without the association, who urged postponement and reorganization," last week's letter from the AAUP said. "This view persists. But to hold the conference with a significantly revised set of participants, as critics suggest, would unfairly exclude some previously scheduled participants. Moreover, altering the list of participants in order to pacify our critics would imply that we had come to accept their arguments about the direction and composition of the conference. We have not."
By publishing the thoughts of conference invitees in Academe, the letter said, along with an explanation of why the conference was designed as it was, organizers hope to fulfill some of their original goals. "Our goal then and now is a full and frank exchange of views," the letter said.
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