For many scholars, a fitting way to honour a deceased colleague is to produce an anthology of related work. At the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, that was the thinking behind plans for a volume of fiction and other writing by women in the Middle East. The anthology was to honour the late Elizabeth Fernea, who in her years at Texas had helped to build up the study of the region and who promoted the publication in translation of works from the many countries there.
In the past week, however, the project fell apart – as the movement to boycott Israel in every possible way left Texas officials believing that they couldn’t complete the work.
The anthology was to have been published in conjunction with the University of Texas Press, and 29 authors agreed to have works included. Then one of the women found out that two of the authors were Israelis. She then notified the others that she would withdraw her piece unless Texas excluded the two Israelis. When the university refused to do so, a total of 13 authors pulled out. A few others wouldn’t tell the centre whether they were willing to go ahead with the project, and without assent from those authors, it was not clear that the anthology would include a single Arab author. (The other authors besides the Israelis were from non-Arab parts of the Middle East.)
Kamran Scot Aghaie, director of the centre at UT, said that it “would not have been academically sound” to do the book without any Arab authors, but that it wouldn’t have been academically or ethically sound to exclude the Israelis. Since the Arab authors wouldn’t participate, the book was scrapped.
Aghaie said that several of the authors who pulled out told him that they objected to his not telling them in advance that there would be Israelis in the volume. He said he rejected that idea, not only for this book but for any future work.
“My view is that it’s not proper to single out individual contributors for other contributors to veto. We were not willing to give any group special treatment,” he said.
Further, Aghaie said that he does not believe academic institutions should be involved in boycotts of academics or writers in other countries. Aghaie said he understands the idea behind boycotts generally. He describes himself as someone who is “highly critical of the tactics Israelis and Palestinians have been using against each other”. But whatever one thinks of Israel, he said, there is no reason to refuse to work with Israeli academics or authors – or to expect other universities to assist in such a boycott – as some of the authors expected Texas to do with regard to calls by some pro-Palestinian groups to boycott anything or anyone connected to Israel.
“As an academic institution, we cannot censor people for the country they are from,” he said. And he also noted that the boycott of Israel is a boycott of Jewish Israelis, not other Israelis, whose participation does not raise objections. Even if one feels boycotts are appropriate for, say, companies that engage in particular activities, “academics need to be an exception”, he said. “As a publishing press or as a programme, it’s not appropriate for us to single out anyone based on religion or national origin,” he said. “To do so is simply discrimination, and it’s wrong.
“The last thing you want to do is cut off dialogue. That’s the stupidest thing one would do,” he said. Not only should academics and authors be talking across borders they should recognise that they don’t necessarily represent their governments’ views. Many American academics, for example, opposed the US invasion of Iraq, and would not want to be boycotted because they couldn’t prevent that invasion from taking place. Academics need to be seen as individuals, he said, including Israeli Jewish academics.
“When Iran executes a gay man, I'm not guilty of that,” said Aghaie, an Iranian-American. “I didn’t do that. I would never support that.”
Aghaie said that, as leader of a centre that tries to involve people from many countries and perspectives in its programmes, he worries about intolerance. He said that he has, in the past, fended off complaints from some people who view with distrust Muslim speakers he has invited to campus. The idea that the academic boycott of Israel is taking hold in ways that affect places such as the University of Texas bothers him. “That’s what really worries me,” he said. “It’s so self-defeating on so many levels to try to keep people out. We have to have academic engagement with all sides.”
Aghaie views the events of the past few weeks with sadness, but others view them as a victory.
Gulf News ran an editorial praising Huzama Habayeb, the Palestinian writer who organised the boycott from Abu Dhabi, where she lives. The editorial describes her as smiling upon finding out that the anthology had been called off.
“Habayeb’s actions are those of a resistance fighter – never giving an inch to Israel, which has illegally occupied her homeland,” says the editorial. “But there’s also a bigger issue — one whereby academics the world over need to ensure that Israel is isolated for its immoral and illegal actions in occupying Palestine and repressing the Palestinian people. The pen is mightier than the sword.”
In an interview with Gulf News, Habayeb said she was thrilled that her efforts had killed the anthology. “I am so proud of having the book cancelled,” she said. “I am a Palestinian and to achieve this, to be able to resist the illegal Israeli occupation of my homeland is something that I will cherish forever. It is my own victory in the struggle.”