British Professors Seek to Cut Ties to Israeli Scholars

Union vote proceeds despite intense lobbying from American faculty groups, who see a serious violation of academic freedom.
May 30, 2006

By a vote of 106-71, one of Britain's two faculty unions on Monday adopted a policy under which its members are urged to avoid contact with Israeli universities or professors unless they demonstrate their opposition to various policies of the Israeli government with regard to Palestinians.

The vote came despite intense lobbying to reject the boycott. While much of that pressure came from supporters of Israel, many American academic groups that do not focus on the Middle East unsuccessfully tried to prevent the boycott, seeing it as a serious attack on principles of academic freedom and of international scholarly cooperation.

This is the second year in a row that a British faculty union has approved a boycott against Israeli academe. Last year, the Association of University Teachers approved -- and then withdrew -- a policy for boycotting Bar-Ilan University and the University of Haifa. This year's boycott is from the other major faculty union in Britain -- the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education -- which is merging with the other union this summer. Leaders of  the association that approved a boycott on Monday have vowed to try to make their policy that of the combined union, although their ability to do so is unclear.

The measure approved on Monday is different in several ways from last year's boycott, and some in fact have said that this year's boycott would be more accurately called a blacklist. The resolution (#198C from this link) -- which calls Israel's policies ones of "apartheid" -- is at once more narrow and more broad. It calls only for individual faculty members to consider “their own responsibility” and to “consider the appropriateness of a boycott.” But it appears to apply to all Israeli academics and institutions -- and it exempts those Israeli academics who “publicly dissociate themselves” from the positions of the Israeli government.

That provision may seem like an acknowledgment of something pointed out by boycott critics last year and this year: Israeli academics as a group are among those in Israeli society most sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and among those most likely to question decisions of Israel’s government. But the provision has also infuriated many academics in Britain and elsewhere because it effectively sets up a political litmus test for Israeli academics (if they take certain stands, they are OK to deal with), and the idea of subjecting academics to political tests offends standards of academic freedom in Britain, the United States and elsewhere.

Supporters of the new boycott and leaders of the union did not respond to requests for interviews except to confirm that the proposal passed. But several British scholars maintain Web sites with detailed defenses of the boycott idea. Mona Baker, one such scholar, writes on her Web site that the boycott provides a non-violent way to oppose Israel policies, that most Israeli professors haven't done enough to end their government's "violent colonial war" against Palestinians, and that some academics in Israel actively support their government.

Many critics of the boycott have pointed out that British academics have not imposed similar sanctions against academe in other countries, including some with well documented records of repression and of denying academics and others basic human rights. Baker writes that while it is true that such countries exist, it is valid to focus on Israel because "Zionist influence (that is Israeli influence) spreads far beyond its own immediate areas of dominion, and now widely influences many key domestic agendas in the West.... This is particularly obvious in the case of the United States, where Zionist lobbies are extremely powerful with both Congress and the media."

In the weeks leading up to the boycott vote, many faculty members and scholarly groups urged their British colleges not to single out Israel. In an era in which academics like to talk about how they are collaborating across international borders, the actions of the British unions have been embarrassing to many -- even to many who strongly disagree with Israel's policies.

Thousands of scholars from around the world signed petitions opposing the boycott. The American Association for the Advancement of Science's board adopted a resolution last week calling the boycott idea "antithetical to the positive role of free scientific inquiry in improving the lives of all citizens of the world," adding that "free scientific inquiry and associated international collaborations should not be compromised in order to advance a political agenda unrelated to scientific and scholarly matters."

The American Federation of Teachers, which represents faculty members at many public university systems, sent a letter to leaders of the British union, urging them to oppose the boycott. Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the AFT, said his group was "extremely disappointed" in the vote, and would work to promote international collaboration involving Israel, and all other nations. Horwitz said that the boycott set a "dangerous precedent" in the way it would set up political tests for Israeli professors to pass to avoid being blacklisted.

The International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, an anti-boycott group based at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, responded to the vote by noting a previous statement by Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University, a Palestinian institution. He wrote of the boycott concept: "An international academic boycott of Israel, on pro-Palestinian grounds, is self-defeating: It would only succeed in weakening that strategically important bridge through which the state of war between Israelis and Palestinians could be ended and Palestinian rights could therefore be restored. Instead of burning that bridge, the international academy should do everything within its power to strengthen it."

The advisory board continued with the bridge metaphor. The group's statement on Monday's vote said: "A boycott strikes against free speech and the free exchange of ideas, limiting the ability of academics to contribute to mutual understanding. Academic life is about building bridges, not destroying them; opening minds, not closing them; hearing both sides of an argument, not one alone. Boycotts are a betrayal of these values."


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