US treads wary path on Israel

June 1, 2007

Unlike the UK, America rarely hears calls for an academic boycott of Israel. A desire to keep lines of communication open, or something more sinister? Jon Marcus reports.

It didn't seem particularly unusual for a nonpartisan organisation of US civic leaders interested in diplomacy to hear a New York University history professor lecture about the Israel lobby and its influence on US foreign policy.

But the speaker was controversial, the setting was a borrowed conference room in the Polish consulate in New York, and an hour before the lecture was to start the consul general called it off.

Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, a prominent American Jewish organisation, had phoned to inquire about the event featuring NYU professor Tony Judt, who once lived in Israel and served in the Israeli army but is now a critic of Israeli policy and of the Israel lobby in the US, which he says stifles debate.

Although Mr Foxman said he did not demand that Dr Judt's presentation be cancelled, the consul general told The Washington Post that he interpreted the conversation as "delicate pressure. We are adults and our IQs are high enough to understand that."

The incident illustrates the complicated nature of public criticism of Israel in the American academic community.

Although there have been occasional calls from US-based critics of Israel for boycotts against Israeli academics, they have been few and far between, and as quickly attacked as Dr Judt's talk.

Academic associations have also tried to stay out of the debate, contending that the best approach is dialogue, not diatribe.

There is the persistent complaint from Jewish organisations, meanwhile, that singling out Israel for sanctions smacks of anti-Semitism. For example, when asked why there has not been a call in the US for an academic boycott against Israel similar to the one proposed in the UK, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz said: "That's like asking why American universities didn't expel Jewish students when the Nazis did it."

The largest faculty union, the American Association of University Professors, cancelled a conference about academic boycotts in the face of criticism that eight of the 22 speakers supported a boycott against Israel.

When Harvard faculty members circulated a petition calling for a boycott of companies supplying Israel with materials used in its occupation of the West Bank, its president, Lawrence Summers, called the effort anti-Semitic "in effect, if not in intention".

Such calls for divestment - and there have been comparable petitions on more than 50 US campuses - have attracted equally strong responses from other university leaders who otherwise tend to stay out of politics.

"Many countries involved in the current Middle East dispute have been aggressors, and calls for divestment against them have been notably absent," said Judith Rodin, president of the University of Pennsylvania.

Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, said: "The petition alleges human rights abuses and compares Israel to apartheid-era South Africa, an analogy I believe is grotesque."

And when Zachary Lockman, director of NYU's Center for Near Eastern Studies, signed a petition labelled "supporters of the academic boycott against Israel", critics demanded that his government funding be taken away, and the provost issued a statement saying that the university opposed any boycott. Dr Lockman later repudiated his call for a boycott.

Criticism of those who criticise Israel is rooted in Americans' deep connection with the Jewish state and their antipathy toward Arab Muslims, according to Lawrence Davidson, professor of Middle East history at West Chester University and a US academic who supports divestment from companies that do business with Israel.

"The reason there has been less support in the US for the academic boycott is because American Zionists have historically had much greater success in restraining or manipulating discussion of the Arab-Israel conflict and the Palestinian situation in particular," Dr Davidson said.

"The political and financial pressure that can be brought on institutions has long created what I call a self-censoring environment in which the cost of giving the Arab and Palestinian side of the story, or criticising Israel, is very high. Most people, including academics and academic administrators, have avoided doing so."

There have been few other calls from US academics for direct action on Israel.

"Not a soul. Not one," said Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, when asked if any of his 125,000 members had suggested a general referendum on an Israel boycott.

Jonathan Knight, director of the AAUP's Department of Academic Freedom, said: "There are much stronger voices in Britain speaking out against Israeli policies and supportive of Palestinian points of view than in America.

"There are certainly folks in this country who are highly critical of Israel, but my sense is that in Britain those voices have a far better opportunity for organised opposition and an organised expression of their views."

Dr Leshner's board of directors unanimously adopted a resolution opposing academic boycotts.

"People are free to stand wherever they like on this issue," he said. "But we believe that science should be apolitical. As soon as you politicise it, you diminish it. Science has nothing to say about these political or values issues."

Instead, he said, the association supports Arab-Israeli cooperation in scientific research. "There is a long history of scientific diplomacy being a vehicle to further positive relations among societies."

That is also the position of the AAUP, which condemned academic boycotts in a 2005 decree.

"Academic boycotts have always had a hard time of it in the US," Mr Knight said. "Opportunities for influencing the course of events in a country and in a university are arguably better by maintaining lines of communication.

Who knows what spark of wisdom might be gained by British or American academics maintaining contact with colleagues in China, Cuba or Syria?"

The AAUP's history is not so straightforward. In the 1930s, when the Nazis were expelling Jews from German universities, the AAUP maintained its ties to the remaining German academics, even sending books that were no longer available in Germany.

During the Vietnam War, the association's members split on whether they should take a position on the conflict. Most wanted all sides to be represented.

Others formally asked: "How bad would things have to get before the principles of academic neutrality are no longer absolute?"

The debate ended in a deadlock. But in 1985, the AAUP called for universities to divest holdings in companies that did business with apartheid-era South Africa.

Still, said Mr Knight, no members have called to discuss a boycott of Israeli academics.

"At most, some have raised the hypothetical question of when would a regime be so horrid that the AAUP's defence of academic freedom no longer applied."

His answer?

"It's not the regime itself that should be of concern. Academic boycotts are aimed not at the universities, but at the regime itself.

"So the better question is, hypothetically, what happens if you have a system of universities in which, unambiguously, there has been an end to academic freedom.

"AAUP has consistently held the view that whether we are talking about Germany in the 1930s, the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s or Cuba today, the lines of academic communication should remain open."

Like many others who oppose an American academic boycott of Israel, Ed Beck, president of an anti-boycott group called Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, said the lack of support for a boycott comes from the value Americans place on the exchange of ideas.

"American academics have a very strong tradition of information flow and academic collegiality," said Dr Beck, a former professor at Pennsylvania State University who is now a consultant.

"Part of the strength of American academia is that it has an infusion of the worldwide perspective. So academics rightly support academic freedom as opposed to academic isolationism."

In addition, he said, American academics have very close ties to their Israeli counterparts.

"A lot of Israeli university research and development and scholarship is modelled after American university traditions," said Dr Beck, whose son attended medical school in Israel. "There certainly is an affinity there."

Dr Beck said his organisation had greater clout with the Israeli Government, which it has asked to grant Palestinian students greater access to higher education, thanks to its anti-boycott stand. "Do we have influence? That's hard to say. I wish we had more influence," he said.

"There are obviously still a lot of problems over there."

The question of influence is one reason why, when the AAUP published its statement opposing academic boycotts, it included the dissenting opinion of members who supported an Israel boycott.

"We decided, well, let's publish what people are saying," said Mr Knight.

"We're all students of John Mill. It's through articulating a dissenting viewpoint that we have a better opportunity to understand what the critics are saying, and to understand what we're saying. And what better reason not to have a boycott?"

'A proud Israeli Jew'

Baruch Kimmerling, the sociologist who led Israeli academia in taking issue with Zionism's established tenets while arguing against academic boycotts, has died of cancer aged 67, writes Nathan Jeffay.

The Hebrew University professor changed the face of Israeli scholarship in the 1970s when he became the first academic to equate Zionism with colonialism, a model that has become core to Israeli social science analysis.

"In his view, the Palestinians - more accurately, the history and structure of the relationship between Palestinians and Israeli Jews - define Israeli society," according to Robert Brym of the University of Toronto.

He effected an "epistemological break with the old Zionist school of sociology," said Yehouda Shenhav of Tel Aviv University. But former colleague Michael Shalev said it would be unfair to remember Kimmerling - "a proud Israeli Jew" - as an anti-Zionist.

In 2003, he wrote: "I'm calling on the international academic community to strengthen its connections with the Israeli and Palestinian academic communities, in order to empower their autonomy and freedom."


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