Quiet, Dons

Published April 29, 2005, issue of April 29, 2005.
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Great Britain’s academic community brought shame on itself last week with the incomprehensible decision by the country’s largest college teachers’ union, the Association of University Teachers, to boycott two Israeli universities. The decision should be rescinded at once.

The resolution, adopted Friday by a slim majority of the association’s council, charges the two Israeli institutions with a host of crimes, most of them imaginary. One, Haifa University, is charged with violating academic freedom and with “victimisation of academic staff and students.” The particulars: a letter sent by a Haifa U. administrator to a historian, Ilan Pappe, rebuking him for defending a master’s candidate who purported to document an Israeli massacre. Pappe has been told he faces no threat of disciplinary action, but the British dons are calling for a complete quarantine of Haifa University and its entire faculty, just in case.

The other institution, Bar-Ilan University, is accused of maintaining academic ties with a college in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, the College of Judea and Samaria. The academic link, the dons say, means Bar-Ilan is “directly involved with the occupation of Palestinian territories contrary to United Nations resolutions.” Never mind that Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to negotiate the future of those very territories, which should put all questions of legal status on hold. Damn the niceties, the dons say; just quarantine the lot of them.

Israel’s minister for world Jewish affairs, Natan Sharansky, got it right in a letter he sent this week to Britain’s education ministers, urging them to condemn the boycott and to take whatever governmental steps possible to have it reversed. The boycott ignores the appalling state of academic freedom in numerous other Middle Eastern countries, Sharansky writes, applying “a double and unfair standard against Israel that is not applied to any other country.” The union’s real goal, Sharansky writes, seems to be not academic freedom but “delegitimizing and undermining Israel.”

As troubling as the union’s action is, however, it’s more troubling to learn from the resolution’s text that it comes in response to a request from a coalition of Palestinian trade unions and civic organizations for an even more complete “academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions.”

Israel and the Palestinians are moving toward a delicate but hopeful re-engagement this summer, made possible by Israel’s Gaza withdrawal and the Palestinians’ election of a new leader. It should be possible, after nearly five years of violence and name calling, to begin building trust on both sides. Calls for boycotts do the opposite.

The British teachers’ union says in its resolution that it “recognises that the peaceful resolution of the problems facing the Middle East will not be brought about by the erection of barriers, but by open dialogue.” Too bad the dons can’t hear their own words.

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