Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The battle for academic freedom

According to The Jerusalem Post, a group of British academics has acquired enough signatures to call an emergency meeting of Britain's Association of University Teachers (AUT), which voted last week to boycott two Israeli universities. Hopefully, the boycott will be overturned at the meeting.
I ask myself, however, why these academics did not fight against the potential boycott with quite the same spirit several weeks ago, when it was crystal clear that it was going to pass or that it was going to be a close thing, and when it was already receiving a lot of coverage, both national and international. I suspect that many of the academics simply concluded that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism has become too endemic and strong a force in British academic circles to oppose, and gave up without a fight. Perhaps also there was an element of ivory tower syndrome, where the academics (on the pro-Israel/academic freedom side, at least) simply did not appreciate the impact that translating theory into action would have on the real world.
The change of heart has much to do with the strong editorials and opinion pieces condemning the boycott in the national press, including the Times and such unexpected sources as the Guardian (!) and the Observer. Clearly, these both gave the academics courage and made them realize that gestures in the academic world have a wider impact. I hope that one lesson here is that the battle on the campuses and in academia against anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and thought control in all its guises can still be won, or at least fought effectively -- if only academics on those sides regain their courage to stand up for what they believe in and make their voices heard.
In the meanwhile, if you were wondering where the boycotters and their ilk get their chutzpah from, how about this op-ed in Ha'aretz, which calls for an Israeli boycott of the BIU-affiliated Judea and Samaria College in the settlement/town of Ariel and for a fight against its recent upgrade to University status, because it "might encourage a spread of the boycott to other European countries."
The writer Shlomo Sand, a lecturer in Tel Aviv University's history dept., cynically begins his piece by implying that Israeli academics opposed the AUT's boycott only because it threatened their sabbaticals in Oxford and Cambridge and because it affected them directly. Let me cynically end my piece by saying openly that it's just as easy for Israeli academics to encourage the boycott of other institutions as long as it doesn't affect them directly. I wonder if Prof. Sand would be quite as enthusiasic about the boycott of his own University...

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