The International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom (IAB) commends the AAUP for its decision to postpone its planned conference on academic boycotts
The conference was originally sponsored by the Ford, Rockefeller and Nathan Cummings foundations. After the New York Sun published that more than a third of the conference participants publicly support boycotts of Israeli universities as part of a strategy aimed at demonizing Israel, and following the revelation that the pre-conference packet initially included an anti-Semitic paper by a Holocaust denier (http://www.nysun.com/article/27123), the three major New York-based foundations called for postponement of the conference (http://www.nysun.com/article/27186). As a first response to this request, the AAUP declared that the conference would still take place as planned (http://www.aaup.org/newsroom/ConferenceMessage.htm), but today it has decided to postpone the conference after all (http://www.aaup.org/).
"The IAB values the AAUP's desire to discuss the important topic of academic freedom and believes that differences of opinion regarding academic freedom on all issues, including politically sensitive ones, can be best served though honest and open and fair discussion by those committed to academic freedom as a basic tenet of higher education" said Prof. Joshua Schwartz, IAB Coordinator and the head of the Rennert Center at Bar-Ilan University. Prof. Schwartz added that "Unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding the AAUP conference made such open and fair discussion impossible; academic freedom for all concerned was best served by the postponement of the conference".
Prof. Gerald Steinberg, Chair of the IAB conference and the Director of the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation at Bar Ilan University said that "by inviting some of the most virulent supporters of boycotts and sanctions, the AAUP conference would have turned into another ideological effort to place Israel on trial. The contrast between the proclaimed objectives designed to explore the issue of academic freedom, and the preponderance of obsessive anti-Israel activists was untenable." Prof. Steinberg added: "to their credit, the funding agencies, including the Ford Foundation, recognized this contradiction and the dangers that that the AAUP conference would have reiterated the slogans and NGO agenda of the 2001 Durban conference". Prof. Steinberg concluded that "in revising the framework for a future conference, the objectives and participants should be consistent, with the emphasis on academic freedom, and not on the Arab-Israeli conflict".
Dr Jonathan Rynhold, IAB member, Lecturer in the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University and a scheduled participant in the AAUP Bellagio conference also stated that he initially agreed to attend the meeting, in the knowledge that the AAUP had firmly opposed the original AAUP boycott, but, ever since he became aware of the make-up of conference participants, he has had great reservations, which he expressed in a series of email exchanges with the AAUP. Dr. Rynhold said that "while I am prepared to debate pro-boycotters, I could not understand why approximately 40% of the conference participants were people whose sole obsession was an academic boycott of one country, namely Israel; I believed that, as a consequence, the AAUP’s laudable aim of discussing the general principle of academic freedom was likely to be eclipsed by the boycotters’ political agenda of demonizing Israel". Dr. Rynhold was also concerned that such a large pro-boycott delegation misrepresented the real balance of opinion in academia, where there is overwhelming opposition to the boycott". "Despite this, I agreed to attend since I did not wish to leave the field open to the pro-boycott campaigners", he concluded.
Dr David Hirsh, IAB member, head of Engage and Lecturer at Goldsmiths College stated that "there are those who would like Israeli academics to be excluded from academic journals, sacked from editorial boards, not invited to conferences and shunned by global academic community". The boycott campaign wants to punish Israeli academics for the human rights abuses of their government; it does not campaign to hold any other academics on the planet responsible in this way, and the boycott campaign makes no distinction between legitimate criticism of particular Israeli policies and the demonizing of Israel, but calls people that think Israel has the right to exist "Zionist", a term intended to hit out like an insult and to carry the same pejorative connotation as "racist"", Dr. Hirsh added.
Hirsh concludes that the "AAUP was quite right when it decided that the Bellagio conference should not go ahead, since the conference, as it was, would have lent legitimacy to this fringe and dangerous campaign as a centrally important "side" in a debate". Hirsh emphasizes that "there are important discussions to have about academic (and other freedoms) in Palestine; about academic freedom and boycotts in general; about the dangers of allowing an anti-Semitic 'commonsense' to emerge out of the anti-Zionist movement; about what scholars can do to support or help those suffering from repression in other countries; about what academics can do to help towards peace, reconciliation and justice in the Middle East, but this conference would not have advanced any of these discussions".
Still, the IAB recognizes the fact that the AAUP was one of the first organizations to issue a statement against the AUT boycott of last Spring and therefore hopes that given the AAUP's record, it will take these criticisms on-board from others committed to academic freedom.
"Many SPME members are proud members of the AAUP and welcome the decision of their academic union to postpone the Bellagio conference until the purpose, goals, format and outcomes of the conference were better defined and agreed to by all the parties", said Dr. Edward S. Beck, IAB corresponding academic secretary and SPME president. "SPME members the stance AAUP took in the AUT Boycott of Israeli scholar and appreciates all efforts to reinforce that position in the future" Dr. Beck added.
The IAB thanks its friends and colleagues in SPME, Engage, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee for their continued support.
For further information contact:
Ofir Frankel, Manager, International Campaign for Academic Freedom
Mobile: +972-545-424043 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org;
Office of the Rector, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan 52900, Israel
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