Blunder defers debate

February 17, 2006

A major international conference to discuss the pros and cons of an academic boycott of Israeli universities has been postponed after organisers mistakenly included an article by a Holocaust denier in delegates' information packs.

The American Association of University Professors planned to hold the meeting to discuss such boycotts, with particular reference to Israel, in Italy this week, but it was forced to postpone the event due to the weight of complaints from delegates, many of whom are Jewish and/or pro-Israel.

Controversy had already dogged the conference. The AAUP, which opposes academic boycotts, has been accused of inviting too many boycott supporters.

The simmering discontent boiled over when, in what the association called an "egregious error", delegates were sent copies of the offending article.

Angered by the postponement, some delegates, including Hilary Rose, emerita professor of social policy at Bradford University, claimed that boycott opponents had sought to derail the event because they were concerned that it was giving the pro-boycotters too much of a platform.

A statement issued on behalf of a number of pro-boycott delegates blamed "tactics used by critics of the conference to cast doubt on the integrity of the organisers and some of the participants, and to ultimately derail it".

They claimed there was sufficient evidence to suggest that "this campaign, organised by American, British and Israeli academics and organisations, questioned the very idea of the conference and found the participation of some of the invitees objectionable".

Opponents of an Israeli boycott said they valued the AAUP's commitment to academic freedom, but added that the circumstances had made "open and fair discussion impossible".

Joshua Schwartz, head of the Rennert Center at Bar-Ilan University, said:

"Academic freedom for all concerned was best served by the postponement of the conference."

David Hirsh, a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, said the AAUP was "quite right" not to go ahead with the conference.

"As it was, (it) would have lent legitimacy to this fringe and dangerous campaign as a centrally important 'side' in a debate," he said.

The AAUP said: "The article had been collected during our research for the conference, but it was never intended for distribution to participants or, indeed, to anyone else."

Although it initially resisted suspending the conference, the AAUP finally relented, but stressed that the event would be held at some future date.

"It is our hope and our goal that this meeting will increase understanding among academics globally that academic boycotts are irreconcilable with the purposes of higher education," a spokesperson said.

The Ford, Rockefeller and Nathan Cummings foundations, the event's main funders, are believed to have called for postponement.

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