Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Petition Against an Academic Boycott

On May 30 delegates for a British academic union voted 158-99 in favor of a boycott of Israeli academics. The decision will not become effective until it is ratified by the membership, a long drawn out process that may never happen. There was swift reaction against the decision both from within British and outside. In particular a United States group that includes Alan Dershowitz has started a petition where those who sign say, in effect, that they will not participate in any activity from which Israeli scholars are excluded. The petition can be found in http://www.spme.net/cgi-bin/display_petitions.cgi?ID=9 and it has already been signed by over 6000 scholars and academics. The whole issue has been discussed in a column by Thomas Friedman in the Sunday New York Times of June 17, as well as a two page article in the Economist issue of June 16-22 under the title: "Slamming Israel, giving Palestinians a free pass - A strangely one-sided boycott in Britain stirs global rage." (Pages 68-69, also online at http://www.economist.com/world/international/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9340508) The president of Columbia University and the chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley have both issued strong statements condemning the boycott.

This post may seem superfluous given all the major publicity that the issue has generated but I want to emphasize that the proposed boycott is not only an attack on the academics of a given nation but also an attack on academic freedom and one does not have to be a supporter of the Israeli government or its policies to sign the petition. At the end of this post you will find several quotes attesting to this point.

The British proposal establishes a dangerous precedent and next time the target of an academic boycott may come from another direction against a different group.

Some people offer assorted excuses for not signing the petition. One excuse is that there is a very small chance, if any, of the boycott been implemented. This begs the question because one reason the implementation of the boycott is unlikely is the quick and strong reaction against it. Small radical groups can cause a lot of trouble if they are not confronted early enough. Do not forget that some Germans laughed at Hitler in the 1920's only to find themselves in concentration camps 10 year later.

Another excuse is that some people do not like Alan Dershowitz and the group that sponsored the petition. This is another poor excuse. The wording of the petition does not imply any endorsement of the group and if people feel strongly about this issue they should start another petition drive rather than do nothing.

Quotes from Signers of the Petition

"I cannot see how boycotting the Israeli academic colleagues who are statistically significantly more likely to be rational and open-minded than a lot of other groups of the general population helps any of the complex problems of the middle east."
Costas Constantinou, University of Birmingham, UK

"One may have strong differences with the policies of the Israeli government, which I do. One may have a strong moral commitment to the rights of Palestinians, which I do. However, it is morally wrong as well as truly muddleheaded, to boycott Israeli academics and hold them responsible for the actions of their government. First of all, this boycott is indiscriminate and unfair, because many of them oppose the policies of their government. Second, because as academics, we should encourage dialogue, not hold discussion hostage to politics. Banning Israeli colleagues from international meetings out of opposition to Israeli government policies will have exactly the wrong effects and send exactly the wrong message - if anything, our goals should be to engage Israeli and Palestinian colleagues in conversation, dialogue and collaboration and create an atmosphere of academic dialogue and discourse that can build trust and help lead to peace."
Jonathan Fritz, University of Maryland

"A boycott towards scientists and scientific meetings is certainly aiming at the wrong group of people. In my experience scientists in critical political situations are a powerful tool in keeping lines of communication open which tend to be closed already for politicians. Therefore a boycott towards scientists is counterproductive and totally unacceptable.I remember well the Cold War and especially the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Red Army. In spite of strong calls for a boycott we attended a conference in Leningrad to secure the continuing personal contact with our scientific colleagues in the USSR. Here we learnt how much they criticized their government's action and told us how they appreciated our coming under politically most stressful circumstances."
Karl Fuchs, Karlsruhe/Germany

"The Soviet Union committed human rights abuses much worse that those attributed to Israel by even its worst critics. There was no call for a boycott of Soviet physicists like Lev Landau and Andrei Sakharov (father of the Russian H bomb).Such a call would have been considered absurd. Israeli academics have been in the forefront of the fight for a just solution to the problems of the Middle East. To punish them for the acts of their government is hypocritical and counterproductive."
Thomas Banks, U.C. Santa Cruz

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