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CUPE Ontario's proposed boycott of Israeli academics is just plain anti-Semitic

Oren Gross, CUPE Ontario's proposed boycott of Israeli academics is just plain anti-Semitic, The Globe and Mail, January 13, 2009

Source: The Globe and Mail

The Ontario arm of the Canadian Union of Public Employees says it will propose "a ban on Israeli academics doing speaking, teaching or research work at Ontario universities" if they do not explicitly condemn Israeli action in Gaza. This proposed boycott is the latest in a series of similar actions by CUPE.

Earlier measures targeted American and British academics who did not condemn their governments' war in Iraq, Russian academics who had been silent during their country's assaults on Chechnya and Georgia, Chinese academics who did not protest against their government's actions in Tibet, and, of course, Palestinian academics who remained silent in the face of a continuous campaign of terrorism orchestrated by Hamas from Gaza.

Well, no, not really. Israeli academics are the only ones who have been targeted by CUPE. Israel, a country with greater academic freedom - for Jews and Muslims alike - than any other nation in the Middle East, is the target. No boycott, for example, is proposed of Syrian or Iranian or Hamas-supporting Palestinian academics who do not explicitly condemn the extensive human-rights violations perpetrated by their own repressive regimes and who operate within systems that limit access to education to minorities or women.

The proposed boycott is justified by its proponents as a response to Israel's bombing of the Islamic University of Gaza during its assault on Hamas. There is little doubt that such attacks are, and ought to be, a major concern for organizations such as CUPE and for anyone who cares deeply about education, in general, and higher education, in particular. Schools are accorded special protection under international humanitarian law and must not be targets in war. But the rules of war also recognize the possibility that such cultural institutions will become permissible military objectives due to imperative reasons of military necessity or if they are used to make effective contributions to military action.

Thus, even assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Israeli attack on the Islamic University is unprecedented, we still must consider several points. First, CUPE was conspicuously silent when the same university had been the direct target of military actions as part of Palestinian in-fighting between Hamas and Fatah.

Second, CUPE did not suggest any boycott of Palestinian academics when close links were revealed between the university - founded by Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin - and terrorist activities. Professors and students have used university labs to research, develop and manufacture explosives that were then used to target Israeli civilians. Palestinian officials have characterized the university, which is under full Hamas control, as "a sanctuary for wanted men."

And third, CUPE did not issue any statement when Israeli universities and colleges were at the receiving end of terrorist attacks (such as the suicide bombing at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the rockets from Gaza that hit Sapir College in Sderot).

There is yet another troubling element in CUPE Ontario's proposal. The proposed boycott is to be based on national origin. But it's abundantly clear that it is does not stop there. What about Arab-Israeli academics? The measure seems to be directed only at Israeli academics who are Jewish. Israel is not immune from criticism, and one can and should be able to engage in such criticism without being branded anti-Semitic. But when a measure explicitly singles out one country and then implicitly singles out only Jews, there is no way to describe such a measure as anything but anti-Semitic, if not - as former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers once put it - in its purpose, then certainly in its effects.

If this proposal becomes official CUPE policy, it would not be Israeli (Jewish) academics who would be shamed by it. It would be CUPE and its members.

Boycotts of academics or academic institutions betray - as Malcolm Grant, president of University College London, put it - a misunderstanding of the academic mission, which is founded squarely on freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech. By its proposed measure, CUPE Ontario seeks to respond to what it perceives to be an unjustified attack on an institution of higher learning by an attack of its own on academic freedom and dialogue, disclosing a fundamental misunderstanding of the academic mission.

Oren Gross is director of the Institute for International Legal and Security Studies at the University of Minnesota Law School.

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