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The other night, my union, the Professional Staff Congress of CUNY passed a resolution objecting to the British University and College Union's beginning of discussion of a boycott of Israeli universities. The hour being late, and the US media being what it is, there was very little substantial discussion of the reasons and logic of those who are promoting this boycott, most of which have to do with what actually goes on at these universities. Those supporting this resolution to oppose the UCU boycott proposal were probably reading articles like this one, by Charles Small at 'Inside Higher Ed," which claims that the boycott proposal is motivated by anti-semitism and that it thwarts academic freedom.
Indeed, it did give me pause to think about boycotting academic institutions in particular. When I came home from the meeting, I wanted to know what my favorite Israeli leftist academics had to say about the boycott. I started with Tom Segev, whose works on Israel's history are hardly "extreme" in their orientation. He supported the boycott of Bar Ilan University in 2005, on the basis that the only people who could support that particular university were those backing settlements in Palestinian territory.
The university's attempts to assert that politics had no place in academia were undermined by Bar-Ilan's embracing of the College of Judea and Samaria, and in the government's decision to upgrade it to a university.
Mr Sharon's education minister, Limor Livnat, said that upgrading the college "is designed to support the settlement vision out of a national interest of the state of Israel". Tom Segev, a renowned Israeli author, said that far from being an attack on Israel, the boycott of Bar-Ilan Uni versity hit the intended target. "The boycott of Bar-Ilan doesn't hurt the state as a whole, but at most, those Israelis who support the perpetuation of the Israeli presence in the territories," he wrote in the newspaper Haaretz.
Ilan Pappe, a professor at Haifa University, strongly supports the boycott, saying that pressure on his own school was one of the only reasons that he was able to continue teaching there after he defended a student who was charged with libel and stripped of a "research" MA because of his thesis about a massacre of Palestinians.
Avi Shlaim, on the other hand, is against the academic boycott, arguing that it would be polarizing:
I'm for a boycott of Israeli goods and against a boycott of Israeli academics. Israel does 40 percent of its trade with the EU and very little of its trade with the US, so EU economic sanctions against Israel would be effective and I'm in favor of them, as well as an arms embargo. Britain to its credit has implemented an embargo on arms sales because Israel has violated the rule it purchased British military equipment. A cultural and academic boycott is an entirely different proposition: that wouldn't hurt the government. On the contrary, it would play into the hands of the government,because the government would say, "You see, there is anti-Semitism, there is hostility towards us as a people. We are all in the same boat, so you should rally behind the flag." Most Israel academics are liberal. Or they used to be anyway. You don't want to discourage them from dialogue and contact.
I tended to agree with Shlaim before reading the articles about the policies of these schools, but after reading about the lack of academic freedom at the Israeli universities, about their cooperation with the Israeli military and finally their discrimination against Arab students, it seems to me that one can't argue that academic freedom currently exists in those universities. In that case, as the boycott's authors argue, there will be more space for real academic freedom in Israel if people around the world confront the issue of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Israel has long claimed to be unusually democratic and has held itself up as a shining example of democracy in contrast to the Arab regimes of the Middle-East. Its academic institutions are one example used ot bolster this argument. If people knew more information about the scandalous violations of academic freedom - and freedom in general- within these universities, they would be less inclined to support them as bastions of liberalism.