Friday, July 13, 2007

Boycotts and Academic Freedom

I'm getting so tired of the hysteria over a proposed boycott of British academics of Israeli universities. It's even reached Free Exchange on Campus, which astonishingly praises a misguided and deceptive resolution passed 414-0 by the US House of Representatives. Exactly why should Congress be telling British academics what to do voluntarily? Worse yet, the resolution (and many media reports) are utterly when it proclaims that "the University and College Union of the United Kingdom voted in favor of a motion to boycott Israeli faculty and academic institutions." This didn't happen. The motion passed by the UCU is to debate and consider a boycott, not to create one.

According to Congress, "such boycotts represent a dangerous assault on the principles of academic freedom and open exchange." That's absurd. The text of the proposed boycott calls for it to apply to Israeli institutions, not the academics who teach at them. Maybe it's not a very effective idea, and maybe Israeli institutions don't deserve this treatment. But it's clear that the harm to academic freedom allegedly caused by a future boycott is far less than the harm to academic freedom caused by the repression of Palestinian universities. A boycott is a lousy solution to a terrible problem, but it's not an anti-Semitic attack on Israel, as Congress seems to think. The lack of intelligble debate on this topic is appalling, ranging back to the AAUP conference at Bellagio, which was denounced and then cancelled because the AAUP (which strongly opposes boycotts) dared to invite people with the opposing point of view to a discussion and then accidentally included some anti-Semitic essay off the web in the reading materials. Boycotts should be debated, and the UCU did nothing more than that. Let's hope that Congress doesn't try any further efforts in the name of academic freedom to tell academics what they can think.

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