Why an Academic Boycott of My University Is Wrong

News Abroad

Mr. Schwartz is Dean, Faculty of Jewish Studies, Director, Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies and Professor of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel. He is also Academic Secretary of the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, Bar-Ilan and a member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. Scholars for Peace in the Middle East informed HNN that it fully endorses this article as a statement of its own views.

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Bar-Ilan University (BIU), founded in 1955 and located in Ramat-Gan, a suburb of Tel-Aviv and part of the greater "Gush-Dan" metropolitan area, was probably not well known to many readers of History News Network. The 140 acre campus, with its 6 Faculties (Exact, Life and Social Sciences, Humanities, Jewish Studies, and Law), 38 departments, 66 research centers, 18,000 students and 1,600 faculty members, was gearing up for the celebrations of our Jubilee Year. We had, in our view at least, much to be proud about and we wished to share this not only with our 60,000 alumni and the academic world in Israel, but with academics and colleagues throughout the world. How ironic that instead of celebrating with the outside world strides in nanotechnology, desert ecology, philosophical inquiry and digital synoptic renderings of ancient Jewish manuscripts, among a few of our academic concerns, we find ourselves embroiled in a struggle over academic freedom.

On April 22, the Association of University Teachers (AUT) in the UK, a trade union and professional association for higher education professionals, decided to impose a complete academic boycott on Bar-Ilan and Haifa Universities. Motion 59 to AUT Council 2005 resolved to call on all AUT members to boycott Bar-Ilan University until it severs all academic links with the Academic College of Judea and Samaria (ACJS) and with any other college located in an "illegal settlement" in the " Occupied Territories."

The ensuing uproar, both in and out of the academic world forced the AUT to call a special meeting on May 26th to debate once again the boycott on these two universities. While both Haifa and BIU may have underestimated the gravity of the situation before the first debate, this time both universities have mobilized, in defense of their own interests as well as of academic freedom in general. The establishment of the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, of which this writer serves as Academic Secretary, as well as of the website for academic freedom, are part of this campaign.

Issues of academic freedom seem to be quite clear and in our favor. The boycott strikes against free speech and the free exchange of ideas. Academic discourse frequently leads to the solution of problems, even political ones. "They have separated themselves from the academic community," commented novelist and university lecturer Nidra Poller from Paris, France (SPME Academic Alert), reflecting the feedback of many professors and intellectuals around the world regarding the AUT boycott.

There is also a perception that the boycott is anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic. While there is much that can be discussed, and disagreed with, regarding the level of democracy, human rights, free speech and academic freedom in Israel and across the "Green Line," there are numerous countries whose record on these issues is dismal both in their own right and compared to Israel and the AUT sees no reason to comment or get involved. Thus, for instance, there are no Jews in Arab universities; Arabs, however, study and teach in all Israeli institutions of higher education. Indeed, there have been demands that the AUT should first deal with such concerns "closer to home" and even been some discussion, both in the academic world and in the political scene, of a counter-boycott. For example, Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) urged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to sever all ties with schools and professors who abide by the academic boycott initiated by the AUT against Israeli universities.

During the course of all of this discussion, little attention has been paid to the "facts" regarding BIU that brought about the boycott in the first place. I should like to devote the rest of this brief article to those issues.

As BIU began to grow, physically and academically, it realized that it had a responsibility not only to its own students, but to those who could not enroll in the university. Potential students, living in outlying, and sometimes economically depressed areas, could not always find the means and wherewithal to enroll in one of the Israeli universities. Often, they were not academically prepared and financial means were limited. BIU, together with local authorities, established 5 academic colleges and brought higher education to the periphery (Ashkelon, Safed, Zemah, Western Galilee and Ariel). The areas were chosen based on academic need and potential, as well as on the financial realties of the students. The locations chosen also enabled higher education opportunities for ethnic and religious minorities in Israel.

BIU provided the academic supervision and apparently did quite a good job. The regional colleges have become extremely successful, so much so that the Council of Higher Education of the State of Israel decided during the academic year 2002-2003 that the regional colleges can and should become independent. Ironically, the only regional college to do so until now is the Academic College of Judea and Samaria (ACJS) in Ariel and this institution is now independent. BIU only retains responsibility for the few students who remain who have not yet finished their (joint) degrees and even this responsibility will soon cease. Indeed, so independent is the ACJS that it has been granted by the government the right to upgrade into a university, an independent one, but budgetary constraints imposed by the Committee for Planning and Budget of the Council of Higher Education will apparently prevent this from happening for the next few years, and perhaps even longer.

Four of the regional colleges were within the Green Line; the fifth one, ACJS, established in 1989 in Ariel, a development town that fit the academic and economic profile described above, is in "Samaria" or the "Occupied Territories," depending upon one's political perspective, and it is Bar-Ilan's present-day (!) connections with the ACJS that resulted in the boycott. The problem for the AUT, beyond blatant issues of academic freedom, is that regarding BIU, they missed the boat on the ACJS connection. As stated above, BIU's connection with the ACJS is negligible and soon to be non-existent. The Ramat-Gan campus is free of geographic or political taint.

Should BIU have undertaken academic supervision of the ACJS? The feeling on the Ramat-Gan campus today is probably split on this matter and not only because of political issues. Israeli Universities have been suffering governmental budget cuts for a good many years and there are unfortunately more years of cuts to come. The ACJS, especially were it to become a university, represents a severe financial drain on all the existing universities, including BIU.

Be all this as it may, the AUT did not do its homework, either in the case of Haifa or in the case of BIU. Basing itself on mistaken facts and flouting the principles of free speech and academic freedom, the AUT has little choice but to rescind the boycott. (Indeed while writing this, Israel radio announced that the boycott had been rescinded, but they were apparently mistaken; the boycott lives on, hopefully, though, to fall soon.)

BIU is unique in the Israeli academic scene. It was founded upon a commitment to orthodox Jewish tradition, Zionist ideology and academic excellence. It is a "Jewish" university. However, it is also a "public" university and, accepting government monies, large sums, but not enough (!), it walks a fine line between its religious commitments and internal academic freedom. The student body is more secular than religious, and the faculty is growing increasingly secular. There is, and has to be, a great deal of sensitivity in BIU to multiculturalism, as well as to the needs of the non-Jews of different religions and persuasions, attending BIU. Our very existence depends upon academic freedom and free speech and these rights are embedded in the democratic rule of law in Israel.

The ultimate political future of the ACJS, as well as of Ariel itself, is a political issue to be solved through negotiations of the parties. We, at BIU, will continue to abide by the academic rules of fair play and by the political rules of law and democratic government.

Academic boycotts can play no role in any of this!

Related Links

  • Juan Cole: Against the Boycott
  • Statement from Bar-Illam University
  • Statement from the University of Haifa
  • Petition to Oppose the Blacklist of Israeli Academics

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    More Comments:

    Diana Applebaum - 5/16/2005

    If you click the website for academic freedom hotlink above
    or go here: http://www.biu.ac.il/rector/academic_freedom/5.htm

    you can add your name to the list of professors who have taken symbollic affiliate status at Bar Ilan.