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The boycott and the 'Jewish Lobby'

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The boycott and the 'Jewish Lobby'

By Andre Oboler, A Zionism On The Web Special

The article is written from the premise that:

(1) Jews cry antisemite to stifle criticism of Israel

(2) There is a world wide Jewish lobby who will stand again any criticism of Israel

(3) If you don't criticize Israel you're part of the conspiracy

(4) Jews do not have a right to speak about antisemitism as they are biased

(5) Israeli occupation is responsible for removing Palestinians right to education (no mention is made of why these actions were take, e.g. how some student unions were controlled by Hamas and a threat in their own right)

(6) If institutions don't take a political line to oppose their government they are institutionally part of the problem.

(7) The basic premise is that it is the middle east conflict that is of primary importance to British academics and any attempt to point out the larger issue of academic freedom is nothing more than a political ploy.

Plenty of other people's views are not mentioned in the article, more analysis below

You can add your comments to our forum.

Israeli university boycott: how a campaign backfired

Source: The Education Guardian

Tamara Traubmann and Benjamin Joffe-Walt, Tuesday June 20, 2006

Following a heart attack earlier this year, Paul Mackney, then general secretary of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe), was lying in hospital last month flipping through emails on his Blackberry. A proposal calling on the lecturers' union to encourage an academic boycott of Israel had just been made public, and flooding his inbox were messages accusing him, among many things, of being a "Bin Laden-oriented supporter of Islamic terror and propaganda" and an "ultra anti-semitic Nazi". Later, at the union's annual conference, he leaned over during a debate to show the most recent: "Subject: Jew Hater!" it read. "It's nice to hate Jews and single them out for everything! It's called ANTI-SEMITISM you disgusting piece of shit."

Mackney was sent over 15,000 messages from boycott opponents. At least 50,000 more were sent to other leaders of Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers, which passed a similar motion last year. Petitions with more than 17,000 signatories were sent to the union. While much of the criticism was well formulated and respectful, there was something troubling about the massive international campaign.

Mackney's family gave shelter to Jewish refugees during the second world war. He has campaigned on behalf of Jewish members for policies for those who do not want to work on the Jewish Sabbath. He opposed the boycott, speaking out passionately against it just before the votes were counted at the conference late last month.

But, he said, a reasoned debate was made extraordinarily difficult by an aggressive campaign involving tens of thousands of activists. "The ironic thing," Mackney said despondently after the motion was passed, "is if we had put this to delegates a couple of weeks ago, before the international pro-Israeli lobby started this massive campaign emailing delegates and trying to deny us our democratic right to discuss whatever we like, it probably wouldn't have passed. People feel bullied, and what we have seen is a hardening of attitudes. All they achieved was making the delegates determined to debate and pass the motion."

After a month covering the debate for our respective newspapers, we are inclined to agree. Most delegates displayed more passion in their outrage at the heavy-handed tactics used to affect the union's decision than they did in their support of the rather divisive resolution. It passed with only a 53% majority. The campaign served the exact end it sought to avoid.

This is not to criticise the desire of the boycott's opponents to affect the decision. Natfhe was debating a proposal calling on British lecturers to boycott Israeli colleagues who do not "publicly dissociate themselves" from "Israeli apartheid policies". The motion contained provocative judgments of the Israeli academy and called for a curtailment of Israeli academic freedoms. Why shouldn't those who value such freedoms and those who support Israel and its academy lobby members of the union?

The pickle is trying to determine whether the campaigns against such boycotts are actually motivated by concerns for academic freedom, or whether they are using the universalist ideal to stifle critical discussion of Israel.

We have found much more evidence of the latter. Through discussions with anti-boycott campaigners and a trace of the most common emails (not necessarily abusive) sent to the union and handed over by Natfhe, we found the vast majority of the tens of thousands of emails originated not with groups fighting for academic freedom, but with lobby groups and thinktanks that regularly work to delegitimise criticisms of Israel. We spoke to a number of these groups about their aims and the extent of their campaigns against the boycott.

The main Israeli anti-boycott organising group is the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, which claims to have a network of hundreds of American and European academics. With few exceptions, its principal work is to defend Israeli academic freedoms.

In the US, home to the vast majority of those organising against the boycott, one major campaigner was the American Jewish Congress, for which academic freedom is not the central aim. AJC supporters could go to the website, type in their name and an email would be sent on their behalf - 5,480 individual emails were sent to each of five union leaders in this manner.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews also held a website-based email campaign, yielding 5,015 individual emails to each union leader.

The only US organisation whose mission is explicitly related to education is Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a Zionist organisation working on US campuses "to develop effective responses to the ideological distortions, including anti-semitic and anti-Zionist slanders that poison debate". The group organised a large petition and appealed to its 6,000 supporters to email a letter to union leaders. Mackney received more than 4,000.

This is not to say such groups do not have a right to counter criticisms of Israel. It is simply to argue that advocacy of academic freedom is not the motivation behind the anti-boycott campaign, and the mission statements of the organisations behind it - all of which involve pro-Israeli advocacy, rather than academic freedom - do not match their rhetoric.

Campaigners have used academic freedom as a tactic in a political campaign seeking to redirect public discussion away from the question of the complicity of the Israeli academy with the occupation and discrimination in Israeli universities (a debate they are likely to lose) towards academic freedom (a debate they are likely to win).

They have so far succeeded, dominating the debate by questioning the morality of a boycott. Campaigners have argued it will hinder the international academic cooperation that has aided the peace process.

They have criticised the problematic precedent set by a UK union boycotting Israeli academics who do not publicly subscribe to the beliefs of that union. They ask why Israeli academics should be singled out for rebuke while those working under regimes with equal or worse human rights violations go unquestioned.

Many boycott supporters engaged with these arguments. Some pointed to incidents in which the union took a stand against human rights violations all over the world; others agreed that a boycott is discriminatory, but argued the boycott of South Africa was both discriminatory and necessary. For the most part, the boycott's advocates admitted it would infringe on academic freedom, but argued that the international community cannot be expected to protect the academic freedom of one group of people when it is dependent on - and often aids in - the suppression of the overall freedoms of other groups, academic and otherwise.

There are merits to both arguments. What is disappointing is that, while there is a robust public debate over academic freedom and the discriminatory nature of boycotts (the primary arguments of the opponents), serious consideration of the makeup and operations of the Israeli academy (source of the primary arguments of its supporters) has been largely absent.

About 9% of Arabs are accepted for university studies in Israel, compared with about 25% of the children of Ashkenazim (Jews of European origin) and about 16% of the Mizrahim (Jews of north African or Middle Eastern origin). The percentage of Arabs in university faculties is about 1%.

While individual Israeli academics have spoken up in defence of academic freedom in the occupied territories, not one institution has officially condemned injustices related to the occupation: not when in Operation Defensive Shield the army sowed destruction on Palestinian campuses, or when students are arrested on their way to university, and hundreds cannot reach their classrooms because of the separation wall or the other restrictions on movement. Under Israeli occupation, all 11 Palestinian universities have been closed at some point, often for years at a time.

What are flourishing in Israeli universities are special programmes for the security forces and centres for security studies, in which the focus is not on academic analysis of the security apparatus, but on finding academic justification for its activities.

Surely all this should be included in a global debate on the academic freedoms of Israelis and Palestinians alike.

· Tamara Traubmann is a journalist for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. Benjamin Joffe-Walt writes for the Guardian


By Andre Oboler, A Zionism On The Web Special

Plenty of other people's views are not mention in the article

Letters and press releases from Nobel laureates to UK government ministers came out against the boycott and decrying it as both a breach of academic freedom and an action with a smell of antisemitism. Here are some quotes:

Larry Summers, President of Harvard:
"There is much that should be - indeed that must be - debated regarding Israeli policy. And all views can be, should be and will be expressed by those in academic life. However, the academic boycott resolution passed by the British professors union in the way that it singles out Israel is in my judgment anti-Semitic in both effect and in intent."

Malcolm Grant, the President and Provost of University College London:
"I find it extraordinary that any academic union should attack academic freedom in this way. An academic boycott for political ends is in direct conflict with the mission of a university, and betrays a misunderstanding of our function."

The AUT released a press statement:
"In May 2005 AUT council overwhelmingly rejected an earlier decision to boycott two Israeli universities and reasserted its belief that freedom of expression, open debate and unhampered dialogue are prerequisites of academic freedom"

Professor Yehezkiel Teler, Vice Chairman of the Israeli Higher Education Council
"Now Britain is politicizing academia, in opposition to every academic value accepted in the world".

Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Lord Triesman
"We believe that such academic boycotts are counterproductive and retrograde".

Aharon Ben Ze’ev President of Haifa University
"Any attempt to create ties between politics and academic research is simply McCarthyism".

Itay Shonshein, the head of Israel’s National Student Union
called the boycott "inciting and racist".

Boaz Toporovsky, head of the Tel Aviv University Student Union
"What they are doing to us is the same racism that the apartheid regime exercised against blacks in South Africa and not otherwise as we are being accused"

Walter Kohn, Nobel laureates for chemistry (1998) and professor of physics at the University of California
"I strongly oppose all academic boycotts based on religious, political or ideological reasons as intrinsically inimical to academic freedom. Scholars have the great privilege - and duty - to set a much-needed example of human solidarity and co-operation."

Where does this leave us?

Draw your own conclusions, but mine are that this article focuses narrowly on a strong Jewish reaction of righteous anger, then blames the Jews for antisemitism while whining that the "real issue" which is causing this racist reaction is being ignored in the ensuing debate. Neither scape-goating the Jew as a collative nor debating in great detail his so called sin as he is put to the flame is a new trick. In the academic community however an attack on academic freedom is the ultimate sin. That is and must be the issue for society. For the Jewish community however, prejudice against Jews is the major issue. Jewish people and organisation have not only a right to comment on this, but the right like all other minorities to determine the paramaters of their persecution. Nazi like boycotts (according to the ADL) are EXACTLY what the groups this article criticizes specialize in exposing. Disregarding their testimony of racism simply because they are Jewish... whatever will they do next? Perhaps revoke their permission to issue press releases? This is not the usual hyperbole. Both the ADL press release and one from the Simon Wiesenthal Center drew stark comparisons between the situation in the UK today and that in Germany just prior to WWII. Minorities can and must speak up for themselves, and yes, this goes for Jews too.

On a side note, the article appears to avoid one major factor contributing to the vote. Perhaps the reason the vote was so close was that delegates knew it was only symbolic (due to the impending merger of the unions) and as such convinced themselves they weren't really contributing to a racist action. If that's true (and it does seem likely) this article, under the cover of journalism, revives the boycotts radical politics, politics that go against academic freedom and the spirit of academia. Just as the authors pointed out with the Jewish groups who campaigned against racism, but weren't academics, this article too is not written by academics. What I want to know is who is feeding this story to the journalists? And perhaps more importantly... why? Radical politics are one answer, but there may just be more to it. For the journalists, all I can say is that you missed a key factor in vote... one that probably had far more influence than any conspiracy theory. When people know the result of their vote won't really affect them, good sense doesn't always prevail.

You can add your comments to our forum. The article follows.

Our links relevent to this article

Students at the Peace Vigil 2005
Simon Wiesenthal Center: Press Release: Ban all grants to boycotters
AUT: Press Release: AUT does not endorse this policy
AJ6: Press Release: The Association of Jewish Sixthformers “dismayed” by NATFHE boycott
SPME Press Release: SPME Strongly Condemns the Boycott / Blacklist of Israeli Scholars 29/5/06
ADL Press Release: ADL Slams British Academic Boycott Policy 29/5/06
Spare us the analogies, Brian Klug, 30/5/06
INN: Sharp Reactions to UK Teacher Vote to Boycott Israel Academia 29/5/06
BLOG: Normblog - Vote of shame
Ynet: Britain slams Israel academic boycott 29/5/06
Ynet: UK educators shun Israeli academics 29/5/06
AP: British academics' union votes to boycott Israeli academics 29/5/06
BLOG: Adloyada - Surprise, surprise: NATFHE passes boycott motion
The Inter-Senate Committee of the Israeli Universities for the defense of Academic Freedom
Prof Steinberg addresses the UK National Postgraduate Committee on the topic of Academic Freedom
A boycott is already on
Israel boycott resurfaces in NATFHE - AWL
NATFHE: Chuck out 198C! - Jon Pike (Engage)
Academic Friends of Israel situation update from 25/5/06
The Peace Vigil Page, the protest against the AUT boycott
Al-Quds University - Hebrew University. Cooperation Agreement
Principles of Palestinian-Israeli Cooperation
National Postgraduate Committee Says: Don't take Academia Hostage

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