Thursday, October 11, 2007

UBC Faculty Association has a bad week: part 2

Israel Boycott debate re-opened

Also in the September's Faculty Focus newsletter (click!), is an article calling on faculty and UBC to open up a debate on an academic boycott of Israeli academia. The article is authored by some familiar faculty members, including the head of the undergraduate biology program, Martin Adamson, and Arts AMS councilor Nathan Crompton. Citing the hardships of Palestinians in having access to higher education, they say that the idea of a boycott cannot be condemned offhand, and must be discussed.

The idea of academic boycotts is not new: they were undertaken against South Africa and Russia by some groups of academics in the 90s. In recent years, academics in Europe and the UK have often attempted to intellectually boycott Israel through their universities and professional unions. These attempts never seem to last very long, since they tend to be ignored, revoked, and renewed with boring regularity. Last May for instance, the UK's largest lecturers' union UCU passed a motion to encourage the discussion of an academic boycott on Israel, urging members to "consider the moral implications of conducting ties with Israeli academic institutions," and calling on the EU to freeze funding of Israeli research. You can find out what I thought of that HERE, and I would have similar feelings about UBC participating in such a boycott. Specific to this article, I thought it was a bit silly that the authors frame the article as a call for "discussion" of a boycott against Israeli academia, instead of actually endorsing such a boycott, since clearly that is their intent.

The reason this particular article in Faculty Focus is interesting is that UBC's president, Stephen Toope has expressed himself in the most strident terms against any such academic boycotts of Israel. In response to the (UCU) motion last May, Toope joined the wave of university presidents across Canada in condemning their action, saying in a statement that "The threatened boycott of Israeli universities by Britain's University and College Union is a dangerous and unsupportable attack on the core values of academic life." I heard president Toope and SFU president Michael Stevenson express themselves similarly in person, when they both spoke as honorary co-chairs of the semi-annual "Stretch Your Mind" conference of Israeli academics at the JCC.

UBC Hillel's director, Eyal Lichtman, has already responded to the article in Faculty Focus, in an email, stating that

any such boycott would be an affront to academic freedom, of course, but when it targets the society with the highest per capita rate of academic publications in the world, the consequences to the advancement of science and other research is incalculable ... The singling out of Israel, where academic and press freedoms are the freest in the Middle East, is a disturbing sign and therefore an indicator that Israel, amongst nations of the world, is being singled out for attention based on premises that must be considered anti-Semitic.
The anti-semetism card is pretty heavy-handed here. The article we're talking about wasn't written in a confrontational or hateful manner by any stretch. But even more annoyingly, Lichtman's response wasn't even shared with Hillel students, but rather sent to outside strategic people (not sure exactly who) - one of whom was so good as to forward it to a buddy of mine. When I asked Hillel staff for further information on this reaction, and why it hadn't been shared with students, I was greeted with stony silence and the statement that "it's out of our hands". I wonder whose hands it is in? or what there is to be in anyone's hands? When I asked further, another staff member said it wasn't a secret, but just not a "public strategy". This is, after all, meant to be open discourse, and this bugs me. This type of overreaction, coupled with annoying non-public strategies does damage to those (and I count myself among them) who want to discredit attempts at intellectual boycotts.

Some background: