Israel Boycott debate re-opened

Also in the September’s Faculty Focus newsletter (click!), is an article calling on faculty and UBC to open up a debate on an academic boycott of Israeli academia. The article is authored by some familiar faculty members, including the head of the undergraduate biology program, Martin Adamson, and Arts AMS councilor Nathan Crompton. Citing the hardships of Palestinians in having access to higher education, they say that the idea of a boycott cannot be condemned offhand, and must be discussed.

The idea of academic boycotts is not new: they were undertaken against South Africa and Russia by some groups of academics in the 90s. In recent years, academics in Europe and the UK have often attempted to intellectually boycott Israel through their universities and professional unions. These attempts never seem to last very long, since they tend to be ignored, revoked, and renewed with boring regularity. Last May for instance, the UK’s largest lecturers’ union UCU passed a motion to encourage the discussion of an academic boycott on Israel, urging members to “consider the moral implications of conducting ties with Israeli academic institutions,” and calling on the EU to freeze funding of Israeli research. You can find out what I thought of that HERE, and I would have similar feelings about UBC participating in such a boycott. Specific to this article, I thought it was a bit silly that the authors frame the article as a call for “discussion” of a boycott against Israeli academia, instead of actually endorsing such a boycott, since clearly that is their intent.

The reason this particular article in Faculty Focus is interesting is that UBC’s president, Stephen Toope has expressed himself in the most strident terms against any such academic boycotts of Israel. In response to the (UCU) motion last May, Toope joined the wave of university presidents across Canada in condemning their action, saying in a statement that “The threatened boycott of Israeli universities by Britain’s University and College Union is a dangerous and unsupportable attack on the core values of academic life.” I heard president Toope and SFU president Michael Stevenson express themselves similarly in person, when they both spoke as honorary co-chairs of the semi-annual “Stretch Your Mind” conference of Israeli academics at the JCC.

UBC Hillel’s director, Eyal Lichtman, has already responded to the article in Faculty Focus, in an email, stating that

any such boycott would be an affront to academic freedom, of course, but when it targets the society with the highest per capita rate of academic publications in the world, the consequences to the advancement of science and other research is incalculable … The singling out of Israel, where academic and press freedoms are the freest in the Middle East, is a disturbing sign and therefore an indicator that Israel, amongst nations of the world, is being singled out for attention based on premises that must be considered anti-Semitic.

The anti-semetism card is pretty heavy-handed here. The article we’re talking about wasn’t written in a confrontational or hateful manner by any stretch. But even more annoyingly, Lichtman’s response wasn’t even shared with Hillel students, but rather sent to outside strategic people (not sure exactly who) – one of whom was so good as to forward it to a buddy of mine. When I asked Hillel staff for further information on this reaction, and why it hadn’t been shared with students, I was greeted with stony silence and the statement that “it’s out of our hands”. I wonder whose hands it is in? or what there is to be in anyone’s hands? When I asked further, another staff member said it wasn’t a secret, but just not a “public strategy”. This is, after all, meant to be open discourse, and this bugs me. This type of overreaction, coupled with annoying non-public strategies does damage to those (and I count myself among them) who want to discredit attempts at intellectual boycotts.

Some background:


5 Comments so far

  1. Steven on October 12, 2007 5:49 pm

    Boycotts are dangerous weapons that hit indiscriminately, and so need to be used carefully. More specifically, they need to be used in such a way that the impact on a state’s government outweighs the negative impact on the livelihoods of individuals. We should be clear that an academic boycott will negatively affect ALL Israeli academics, many of whom are opposed to the occupation, or whose work is politically neutral in furthering scientific knowledge. I appreciate that the letter writers tried to separate targeting institutions from targeting individuals, but they shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that separation will hold if a boycott were to be introduced.

    Martha Nussbaum wrote a good piece on the academic boycott here:

  2. Anonymous on October 17, 2007 1:38 am

    I’d say that the discussion of a boycott is a good thing as not all individuals within the union are interested in a boycott. In the past I think a vote occurred for a boycott without discussion, which left members of the union rather annoyed.
    I don’t think anti semitism has to be brought up in this situation — it is likely a ridiculous assertion.
    I fail to see how boycotts, if done correctly, are dangerous. They are attempts to exert pressure on an academic community that is not living up to the values of global acadamia and, as such, ought to be made to come in line with those values. The issue in this case, is whether the actions of some aspects (perhaps even departments, in one case) of Israeli acadamia are exemplifications of the entire system. Perhaps, when an entire system is corrupted (an academic one) a boycott is necessary. So, discussion is the way to answer this empirical question.

    Anyway, I think there ought to be some boycott talk about SFU because of Stevenson and noble. Well, the point is that university presidents will be against boycotts, because they are integral administrative overseers whose interest it is to keep a university going and to deflect threats against those things that keep a university running — research, funding, etc. That is why you need an independent body to discuss these matters in order to put conclusions into action.

  3. Steven on October 18, 2007 2:27 am

    “They are attempts to exert pressure on an academic community that is not living up to the values of global acadamia and, as such, ought to be made to come in line with those values.”

    What is required for this? That all academics in Israel condemn the occupation? Given that there are grounds for reasonable public disagreement about Israel’s actions in Palestine, in what way has Israeli academia failed to live up to the values of global academia? Basically, what you are advocating sounds like a false tolerance, which is really a recipe for institutionally punishing people for having different views than yourself. This is assuming you do think there should be a boycott of Israeli academia.

  4. Anonymous on October 18, 2007 4:00 pm

    Errr…buddy, you say,

    Basically, what you are advocating sounds like a false tolerance, which is really a recipe for institutionally punishing people for having different views than yourself.

    This is what is part of the idea behind the boycott: that one of the universities was punishing the views of one individual because they were different from the majority view.

    Anyway, I’m merely saying that a decision on a boycott against another country’s academia is possible given a set of criteria that most communities would agree to and that boycott ought to be enforced by all parties involved. Once those criteria have been worked out, then you point to a country — in this case Israel, but it could be Greenland — and clearly demonstrate that those criteria have been broken. At the moment, I don’t think there is such a criteria, so I said that a discussion by the union is good rather than merely something that is superficial, as the poster thought.

  5. jamie griffiths on April 11, 2010 10:32 pm

    I urge the writer of this article to do some study of the history of the region. The article reads as ill-informed opinion only.

    Israel is a democracy only for Jewish citizens. The rights of Palestinian_Israeli citizens are restricted based on Race and Religion. Israel’s claim to democracy has been well researched by many academics. It is two-tiered and as such is not democratic by definition. It is invalid and disingenious.

    Palestinian academics are rarely granted study visas abroad by Israel which administers the illegal military Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. There are plenty of other substantiated reasons for the academic boycott of Israeli professors, but that one alone is enough for me. Also the fact that the educational opportunities of all Palestinians are also restricted by design both inside Israel and in the Occupied Territories.

    The crash of Israel’s international reputation is the result of its own racist and illegal military actions, particularly since 1967.

    The grassroots boycott has been brought on themselves.
    I wholeheartedly support it.
    I urge you all to do the same, and to study the history of the region. Better still, get on a plane and go and visit.

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