May 26, 2005 5:39 pm


Jim Vaughan of was kind enough to forward to me (with the permission of the writer) a circular originating from his home institution at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. The spirit of this circular, he adds, is much more representative of the views of academics working in British universities than the handful of activists behind the AUT motion...

Subject: AUT boycott

I am writing to you express my dismay at the motion, passed at last week's AUT council meeting, to sever academic links with Haifa and Bar Ilan universities in Israel. This motion violates the very principles of professional academic enquiry; is intellectually shallow; and reeks of anti-Semitism.

Surely, one of the most elementary principles of academic enquiry is the questioning of prejudices and assumptions, including one's own. However, this boycott seeks to institutionalise a kind of thought police rarely seen outside totalitarian regimes: why should a marine biologist, for instance, an expert on late medieval German towns, or of Assyrian literature, have their participation at UK conferences decided on the basis of their political views, rather than the quality of their academic work ? If someone whom we regard highly for their intellectual abilities holds views we disagree with, should not our first reaction be to find out why he or she holds these views ? Where, moreover, was that critical engagement with the motion itself: ? It was, after all, passed without debate, and without Haifa or Bar Ilan being offered an opportunity to refute the accusations levelled against them. If we accuse others of violating basic standards of academic and scholarly integrity, it is paramount that we apply to our actions the very standards we are claiming to defend.

This motion is intellectually shallow, full of contradictions, and based on double standards. Assuming that the allegations made against Haifa and Bar Ilan are correct, this motion penalises academic staff for the dubious actions of their employers. Were this principle to be applied to British institutions, and judging from the number of motions passed against university management at Birmingham, anyone from the Birmingham AUT, from where that motion emanated, would have had to be barred from attending the AUT meeting, unless they had first explicitly and publicly declared their opposition to their management's actions, ideally, it seems, combined with a public show of contrition - sackcloth, ash and self-flagellation being, I guess, optional. If Haifa and Bar Ilan were guilty of dubious dealings, then it is the institutional management that should be boycotted, not academics employed at these institutions. If, as alleged, Haifa prevented its academics from engaging critically with the foundation of the modern state of Israel, then, surely, we should resist attempts to block their research agendas, not boycott victims of infringements of academic liberty. Moreover, if Haifa were guilty of suppressing criticism of Israeli policy, this motion would mean that we would only be able to work with those academics who were willing to have themselves sacked for the privilege. Surely, that's too high a price to pay for the approval of some self-righteous middle class Brits.

Which brings me to my final point. The way in which Israel has been singled out for criticism, the language of the boycott itself, and the degree to which Israeli academics have been victimised by those supporting the academic boycott, raises the question whether the vowedly progressive intentions of this motion are not merely a disguise for old-fashioned anti-Semitism. This impression may well be unfounded (and I hope it is), but it also one which that motion and its proponents have done little to dispel. Ultimately, this motion, rather than aiding, has seriously damaged the cause of those, in Israel and elsewhere, who are critical of Israel's policy in the occupied territories. There are many ways in which opposition to Israeli policy can and should be voiced, but this kind of shallow, uncritical, self-righteous and - in its undertones - racist motion is not one of them.

To read of the - universally hostile - response among our colleagues across the UK was heartening. The situation is such, however, that we cannot remain aloof from the debate any longer. I am therefore suggesting that we, in Aberystwyth, take a number of steps: first, we break this boycott; secondly, we should actively encourage engagement with Israeli and other Middle Eastern scholars; thirdly, we should support the efforts by John Pike at the Open University to call a special council meeting to revoke this meeting; and we should issue a formal motion of protest to the AUT.

I have taken the liberty of copying this e-mail to a number of colleagues in Aberystwyth and elsewhere, who, if they agree with me, are very much invited to write similar e-mails to you or to their local AUT branches. There already are too many colleagues leaving the AUT in protest at this motion. We owe it to them, and to our own claims of academic and intellectual integrity, that we do our best to have this shameful motion rescinded.

comments powered by Disqus