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A slippery slope to totalitarianism

By Geoffrey Alderman, Thursday May 24, 2007
Source: EducationGuardian.co.uk

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.

Reproduced at Zionism On The Web for educational purposes only, please site the initial source as listed above

Related items:

Press Releases

AFI Digest of March 28th

National Postgraduate Committee (NPC)
National Union of Students (NUS)
Jewish Agency (JAFI)
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
Statement from The Russell Group on UCU motion on Israeli boycott
Statement from the LSE on UCU's motion in support of an Israel boycott
Columbia University response to boycotts of Israeli universites
Board of Deputies Response to UCU academic Boycotts
American Jewish Congress response to UCU boycott
American Physiological Society Response to the British academic boycott of Israel (includes feedback on this)
National Postgraduate Committee and the Academic Boycotts (14/8/07)
University and College Union (UCU) Press Release, Boycott illegal, 28th Sept 2007
Academic Friends of Israel Press Release, 29 September 2007

News Reports

Union committee to reconsider Israeli academics boycott, The Education Guardian, March 27, 2008
UK group proposes boycott of Israeli academia, Jerusalem Post, March 30, 2008

A slippery slope to totalitarianism, Education Guardian, May 24, 2007
Physicist who refused to lecture in U.K.: I'm not calling for boycott, Haaretz, May 25, 2007
Livni [Israeli FM] meets with British ambassador over U.K. boycotts, Haaretz, May 29, 2007
Memo From London: Should British Academics, or Rock Bands, Boycott Israel? New York Times, May 30, 2007
Lecturers back boycott of Israel, Education Guardian, May 30, 2007
Academics express outrage at Israeli boycott, Education Guardian, May 31, 2007
Divide and Rule, Education Guardian, June 5, 2007
Boycott should outrage academics, Inside Higher Ed, June 5 2007
Ignored by the Brits, Ynet, June 6, 2006
Boycott will destroy British academia, The Guardian, Saturday June 9, 2007
We Will Isolate Them, The Guardian, June 9, 2007 + ZOTW Commentry June 10, 2007
Government to form joint task force to counter U.K. boycotts, Haaretz, June 8, 2007
UK proposes joint academic seminar, Ynet News, June 10, 2007
US Unions condemn boycotts, The Jewish Chronicle, August 17 2007
Boycott a blessing in disguise, YNet News, Opinion, June 1 2007
FM praises British academics for nixing planned boycott of Israel, Haaretz, 30/09/2007
British academics forgo boycott call, Haaretz, 29/09/2007
Lecturers drop Israeli universities boycott call after legal advice, The Guardian, 29/09/2007

Responces, Blogs, Newsletters

UCU Reconsidering Boycott, Little Bulldogs, March 27 2008

UJS Chair's letter to UCU General Secretary
Lancaster University Students' Union Policy in repsonse
Academic Friends of Israel Digest vol 6 no 10 One week on
Academic Friends of Israel Digest vol 6 no 12
Goldhirsh Foundation Response
Responding to the Boycott by Shalom Lappin, at normblog, June 3 2007
Dark Days for the British Academy a letter by Prof Daniel Statman
A letter to UCU from Guy Handelman
SPME Petition against the boycott
Response from prominent British figures and law-makers, in Guardian Letters page, June 12, 2007

Other relevent documents and sources

The 2007 UCU motions
The 2007 document to be sent to branches
An explanation about the Durban Stratagy
Key quotes and summary of responses to the UCU policy
Why a cultural boycott of Israel would be banal, gestural and morally compromised
Relevent section of the Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism
More background on anti-Israel boycotts in general

Other sites related to the boycott

UJS's UCU Academic Boycott
BICOM on the UCU Boycotts
Academic Friends of Israel
Jewish Agency page on Addressing the Academic Boycott of Israel at UCU