Boycott subverts scholarly goals

June 15, 2007

Ill-conceived action against Israeli academics will harm colleagues, entrench hardliners and damage UK academe, says Robert May.

Once again, a handful of UK academics are giving us all a bad name. Colleagues the world over are now well aware that the University and College Union is revisiting the proposal that disapproval for policies pursued by the Israeli Government should be expressed by a general boycott against all Israeli academics.

The definitive statement on this issue, in my opinion, was made on April 28, 2002, by the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies. This organisation, of which the Royal Society is a founding member, was created "to address grave issues of science and human rights throughout the world. It aims to put into practice the professional duty of scientists and scholars to assist those colleagues whose human rights have been - or are threatened to be - infringed, and to promote and protect the independence of academies and scholarly societies worldwide.

The basis of the network's activities is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

The 2002 statement declares: "Moratoria on scientific exchanges based on nationality, race, sex, language, religion, opinion and similar factors thwart the network's goals. They would deny our colleagues their rights to freedom of opinion and expression; interfere with their ability to exercise their bona fide academic freedoms; inhibit the free circulation of scientists and scientific ideas; and impose unjust punishment. They would be an impediment to the instrumental role played by scientists and scholars in the promotion of peace and human rights.

"This statement, although that of a general principle with universal applicability, was prompted by a petition (published in Nature) that advocates a moratorium on all grants and contracts to Israel from European cultural and research institutions. The moratorium being advocated, although surely well-intentioned, is misguided and inevitably counterproductive."

Quite apart from the general reasons set out by the IHRNASS for deploring academic boycotts in general, there is a disturbing asymmetry in the UCU's action being focused exclusively on Israel's violence and not on violence done to Israel. If the union thinks a boycott of Israeli academics will help, why not a parallel boycott of Palestinian academics? Elections in Palestine, let it not be forgotten, favoured Hamas, which continues to deny Israel's right to existence, and expresses those beliefs in rocket attacks and suicide bombings directed at the civilian population. No Israeli or Palestinian academic of my acquaintance approves of the random violence on either side, but if the UCU wishes to express its members' sense of their moral superiority by an academic boycott, why not a symmetrical one?

Given this renewed call for an academic boycott against Israeli academics, it is not surprising to find the international community looking askance at UK academe. Some leading North American academics are suggesting a boycott of UK academics - a "boycott boycott" - to dramatise the injustice of the idea.

Whatever the underlying motive, I think it is a bad idea. I also find it distressing that so wise a person as Steven Weinberg, the American physicist and Nobel laureate, cancelled his visit to London, where he was to deliver a major lecture, as a protest against the injustice of the action taken by the British National Union of Journalists. (I might add that his essay Nuclear Terror: Ambling toward Apocalypse is the best analysis of the continuing threats of nuclear proliferation that I have read.) Professor Weinberg is at pains to emphasise that his is a purely personal action and that he is not calling for a general boycott. In a letter sent to friends, he interprets the UCU's action as "one more sign of a widespread anti-Semitism among British intellectuals". I may be wrong - though I hope I am not - but I think the motive for their ill-considered action may be more a feeling for a perceived "underdog", mixed with an implicit and unacknowledged belief that Israel should be held to higher standards than its attackers.

Whatever the motive, I think everyone involved in these issues should take to heart the concluding words of the IHRNASS statement: "We all look forward to an equitable solution to the crisis in the Middle East, with lasting peace and stability for both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

But the strongest impact of a moratorium would, rather than influencing Israeli policy-makers, be to harm our scientific colleagues in Israel, many of whom have actively promoted peace through collegial engagement and open communication among academic centres in the region."

Lord May is a professor in the zoology department at Oxford University.

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