Daily Israel Report

Op-Ed: Academics Betray Academic Freedom

All Israeli scholars are made culpable for the perceived sins of the Jewish state. Add the Irish Teachers Union to the list that also includes Columbia, Toronto, Oxford professors and universities.
Published: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 1:36 PM


In what has nearly become a perverse, recurring rite of spring, and yet more evidence that universities have become, as Abigail Thernstrom has described them, “islands of repression in a sea of freedom,” the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), which represents some 14,500 members, voted in early April “to cease all cultural and academic collaboration with Israel, including the exchange of scientists, students and academic personalities, as well as cooperation in research programmes [sic].”

Why employ academic boycotts against Israeli academic institutions? Because, its union members say, the union should “step up its campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against the apartheid state of Israel until it lifts its illegal siege of Gaza and its illegal occupation of the West Bank, and agrees to abide by International law and all UN Resolutions against it.”

But facts and history are not the concern of the morally-elevated, self-righteous professoriate. In a disingenuous moral inversion in which academics are forced to assume personal responsibility for a state’s politics and diplomacy, all Israeli scholars are made culpable for the perceived sins of the Jewish state.

“BDS is a noble non-violent method of resisting Israeli militarism, occupation and apartheid, and there is no question that Israel is implementing apartheid policies against the Palestinians,” said Jim Roche, a lecturer in the DIT School of Architecture and member of the TUI Dublin Colleges Union branch who proposed the boycott motion.

That academics so carelessly throw about politically-loaded, and inaccurate, terms when discussing Israel and sanctifying the Palestinians, words like “apartheid,” “occupation,” and “militarism,” indicates exactly why a boycott that seeks to make absolute moral judgments is bound to be perilous—especially for academics who give the pretense of standing for values of academic freedom, scholarly inquiry, a respect for history and law, and open debate over a complex geopolitical problem.

A boycott barring all Israeli academics from participating in Irish academic endeavors is also defective because it necessarily must assume that all Israeli scholars—regardless of their political orientation and social values—are painted with the same moral brush and deserve to be condemned and excluded merely because of the perceived political sins of the nation in which they live.

Critics of the called-for boycott, and there are many who have voiced immediate and thunderous opposition, both of the current Irish version and also of similar academic boycotts in Britain, wondered aloud why, of all countries on earth—countries where actual and chronic repression, genocide, occupation, militarism, and subjugation do exist—was Israel being singled out for the academics’ disdain. Many, of course, ascribe the obsession with Israeli faults as being symptomatic, and an outgrowth of, a more serious concern: Europe’s long sickness of anti-Semitism.

Assuming that the Irish union is actually innocent of this pernicious hatred, and that their sanctimonious effort to right the perceived wrongs done to the Palestinians is, though misconceived, sincere, what is the just cause or set of values they purport to defend with their boycott? If they take the outrageous first step of denying Israeli academics any discourse at all in what is usually called “the academic marketplace of ideas,” of banishing them from the world of dialogue, research, and learning, have not they already struck a fatal blow to the core guiding principle of the academy? Since when has it been the responsibility of the university to control the actions of the state, or for its members to share culpability for the political decisions of a nation?

And if the union members in fact feel that academics shape and influence national policy and political behavior, their choice of the Palestinians, with their legacy of homicidal aggression against Israel, seems a bit troublesome. What should not be lost on observers is that in the Union’s decision to condemn and boycott Israeli academics, they therefore affirm the perceived ideological superiority of the Palestinian side of the moral equation. They have embraced ‘Palestinianism’ completely as their choice of a cause to defend.

Roche himself openly declared his allegiance to the Palestinian cause, confirming, if there was any doubt, that “The unanimous passage of this motion that shows that the Palestinian struggle for freedom, of which academic freedom is a key part, resonates with TUI members and sends a strong message of solidarity to their counterparts in Palestine.”

The notion that universities ought to facilitate a range of opinions and ways of thinking about complex issues should be at the core of academic freedom and a university’s overall mission. It requires, though, that campuses allow many different views and perspectives, and do not try to exclude unpopular thought from being heard in the proverbial marketplace of ideas.

Concern for the "long-suffering" Palestinian Arabs may or may not be a commendable effort, but the isolation and demonization of Israeli scholars as a tool for seeking social justice for that one group “represents a profound betrayal of the cardinal principle of intellectual endeavour,” observed commentator Melanie Phillips, “which is freedom of speech and debate,” something universities should never stop diligently defending.

Richard L. Cravatts, Professor of Practice at Simmons College and author of Genocidal Liberalism: The University’s Jihad Against Israel & Jews, is president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.