Thursday, May 31, 2007

Intellectual boycotting - can we boycott stupid people too?

Well, Britain's academic community has once again embarrassed itself. Britain's lecturers' union, UCU, (numbering 120 000 members) voted Wednesday in favor of encouraging and discussing an academic boycott on Israeli universities and research institutes. The motion doesn't impose the boycott on union members yet but rather brings the question of boycotting Israel's academia to discussion with all the members, urging the membership to "consider the moral implications of conducting ties with Israeli academic institutions." It calls on the EU to freeze funding of Israeli research. The UCU's president herself is opposed to this development, and government and many British universities themselves have also reacted negatively. It will be interesting to see if this particular effort will go through after discussion with the union membership. This is approximately the third effort of this kind in the past five years in Britain's academic community. The previous two attempts ended up failing or being revoked.

While some, (including Britain's ambassador to Israel) say that this motion is unlikely to affect academic bilateral relations much, it is still disturbing that 158 out of 257 delegates at the UCU convention supported such a motion. The principle of academic freedom is essentially about dissociating collective administrative bodies from politics such that individual academics are uninhibited in their political and research choices. Beyond that, the concept of discouraging or restricting productive collaborative research because of unconnected political issues is incoherent to the extreme. Even forgetting the fact that the academic community is one of the most progressive and 'peacenik' sectors in Israeli society, what in tarnation do two cancer researchers (one at Hebrew U, and one at Cambridge) who want to collaborate, have to do with occupation and activism? Maybe what they want is merely to provide a new therapy, publish their papers, and enrich humanity's store of knowledge. What could possibly be accomplished by stigmatizing such a working relationship?

Clearly, academics are not individuals that are miraculously free of politics, nor are academic organizations like UCU. They also have the inviolable freedom to say what they wish and carry what motions they will. But when an academic community sees fit to restrict its own intellectual opportunities, priorities have gone out of whack. Israeli research has been rich and innovative over the last 60 years - and brought into being ideas and objects of great interest and benefit, from technology for desert agriculture, to ubiquitous computer programs. Why punish one of the most interesting, international, productive, and beneficial sectors of Israeli society for an occupation that is in no way in their mandate to address? Attempting to scare British academics from collaborations, and bully Israel's powerful intellectuals into political acquiescence is a strategy likely to alienate and anger, not build consensus or communication. It certainly won't forward research or knowledge-making. A poisonous culture has already emerged in some British institutions whereby anything associated with the Jewish state is stigmatized, villainized, and rejected. As someone who has spent considerable time taking in both the good and the bad in Israeli society (including academics), I find myself wondering what the motivation behind this harsh profiling is - because it certainly is not warranted by reality.

So that's where I stand, I suppose. Are collective intellectual boycotts effective, warranted, and moral in this, or other situations? I want some arguments.