A slippery slope to totalitarianism
By Geoffrey Alderman, Thursday May 24, 2007
Singling out Israeli academics for a boycott will set a dangerous precedent for freedom of thought, warns Geoffrey Alderman
In a few days' time the University and College Union will be asked to endorse - in an admittedly nebulous form - the 'boycott' of Israel's academic community, or, rather of those members and organs of that community who refuse to subscribe to a certain view of the state of Israel and its place in the international community.
I have no intention here of wasting time in any detailed consideration either of the legitimacy of the Jewish state or of the policies of that state in relation to its right to defend itself. No doubt some of these policies are open to criticism. But we must remember that Israel is at war and has been ever since the moment of its re-establishment fifty-nine years ago. In the defence of its borders and its citizens Israel, like any other state, is entitled to take tough measures - as Britain did during its own fight for survival between 1939 and 1945.
The boycotters know that in Israel, academic communities are free to operate with none of the pains and penalties that are hazards of daily academic life in Iran. Yet they do not ask us to boycott Iranian academia. They know that in Turkey, academic freedom is severely curtailed, and that academics in Turkish universities who question official accounts of Turkish history are routinely persecuted. Yet they do not ask us to boycott Turkish institutions of higher education. They know that in China there is no academic freedom - none at all. Yet they do not ask us to boycott the People's Republic of China.
Commendably, one motion before the forthcoming UCU congress draws attention to the persecution of trade unionists and teachers by the fascist regime in control of Colombia. But, equally commendably, this motion does not call for a boycott of Colombian universities. It is right not to do so.
The preoccupation of the boycotters with Israel gives away part of the game that the boycotters are playing - to attack Jewish rights and to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state. But there is - if it can be imagined - a much more sinister game that we are being invited to play. And that game has as its objective the acceptance of the starkly totalitarian and genuinely terrifying view that dialogue within the worldwide academy must be open only to those who agree, beforehand, to espouse a certain set beliefs, and to identify themselves with a certain political agenda.
In this case the set of beliefs relates to the Middle East, and the political agenda has to do with the reshaping of the Middle East map. The motion before the UCU congress talks about "the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation." But many academics in Israel and outside it do not accept the term "occupation." In my view Jerusalem has been liberated, not occupied. You may not agree with me, but am I to be forced to alter my sincerely held view as a condition - say - of having an article considered for a learned journal, or of being able to participate in an academic conference?
If the boycotters have their way, this is what will happen. And at that point British academia will find itself at the top of a slippery staircase with no landing. If I have to endorse a certain set of political values in order to maintain a dialogue with my fellow historians, why not extend this mechanism of compliance to other political and social issues, and other subject areas? For example, why not pass a motion obliging all teachers of clinical medicine and nursing education to publicly declare their support for abortion on demand, and prohibit all contact with those who refuse to make such an affirmation?
The answer is that to do so would be to violate the basic tenets of academic freedom and to prostitute universities to the whims of political agenda-setters.
That, of course, is precisely what the boycotters want. It is a nightmare scenario that must not come to pass.
Professor Geoffrey Alderman is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London.
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