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There You Go Again!

GS Don Morris, Ph.D.
April 9, 2005

Israeli academics who refuse to condemn their government's actions in the occupied territories risk a boycott by the UK's leading lecturers' union. However, the new boycott motion contains a clause to exclude "conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state's colonial and racist policies".

The reason for this boycott as explained by Gargi Bhattacharyya, executive member and president-elect of the AUT is "I think within the sector there is a lot of concern about what's happening in Palestine and a huge concern that the Palestinian education structure has been destroyed."

It seems as though British academics are turning down offers to work with big research organizations in Israel, citing their objection to the Israeli government's policies.

One, received last month from an unnamed British academic, said: "I support the academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions, as a means of registering my protest against Israelis' lack of respect for human rights and continuing illegal occupation of Palestinian land."

Remember in the autumn 2003, Oxford University suspended Andrew Wilkie, a professor of pathology, for two months after he refused to accept an application from an Israeli student for a PhD because he had a "huge problem" with Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Do you also remember Mona Baker caused an international row in 2002 when she sacked two Israeli academics from the board of a translation journal she edited, citing the boycott.

It seems to this observer that the culture within British academia (perhaps others as well) is shifting from a bastion of inquiry, expression, discovery and academic freedom that purports to seek the truth toward one contaminated by politics. Academia had prided itself on the noble concept of academic freedom, yet now academia denounces the very directive professors vehemently have defended. Is this not the height of hypocrisy?

Historically, academia had positioned itself socially as an agency that was the custodian of free intellectual inquiry and open debate. I understood that we sought to ask critical questions and discover truth, even defend said truth. However, now it appears that academia's behavior has redefined "truth" as "so long as what you present supports our political view, it is therefore true." Seems to me that academic integrity has gone wanting.

Let's examine the new British proposal. It does exclude conscientious objectors among Israeli academia. Thus, Israelis must denounce the "hand that feeds them" and my colleagues seem fine with this request. Question, does this request not betray the cardinal principle of intellectual activity: freedom of speech and debate?

If we agree that the aforementioned principle of debate and freedom of speech is the foundation, no the cornerstone upon which we have built our very existence how does one justify such selected inquiry? Upon further examination of British academics' reasons for supporting the boycott, one discovers an almost "talking points" approach for their defense. Using their own words, their own justification statements, one discovers the ignorance of the professors with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Truly, it appears as though they are simply repeating "talking points" found on many web sites. The most common reasons given for support are:

lack of respect for human rights
illegal occupation of Palestinian land
violation of international law

With all due respect to my British colleagues, it is clear that there does not exist an honest debate within their community regarding the aforementioned justification points. I notice the complete absence of specific claims, the lack of explanation with regards to which international laws have been broken, the apparent misinterpretation of UN resolutions 242 and 338 and the singular direction of egregious actions by all parties involved. Have my colleagues done the research? Have they resided in the areas under discussion? Have they studied and thoroughly examined these issues and have they independently arrived at their conclusions? We teach this process to our students and I assume that we all practice what we preach. However, as one who has studied the preceding and as one who lives in this area of the world, it appears to me those who rest their support upon factually bankrupt points present themselves to me as lazy academicians who demonstrate their ignorance. Thus, to now recruit others to disconnect themselves from inquiry and reasoned analysis is the height of hypocrisy. Rather than investigate, dialogue and struggle with this complex human tragedy, terminating discourse is simply, well, nuts!

M. Davis once wrote: "An academic boycott, a complex social undertaking where harm is immediate and benefit comparatively far off and uncertain, might well have enough unwanted consequences to outweigh its political or moral justification."

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