The AAUP, the Higher Education Union in the United States, is organising a gathering in Italy in two weeks time to discuss - and perhaps change - its statement on boycotts. It has invited nine advocates of a comprehensive academic and cultural boycott of Israel to its villa near Milan, for a lengthy discussion of boycotting Israel, and says that these nine are 'specially selected experts'. However, the AAUP will not be hearing from any Palestinian opponents of the boycott, anyone who opposed the boycott from the AUT, or anyone from the Israeli Faculty Associations. This conference is a big mistake and should be postponed until a more representative gathering can be organised.
I got an invite to the conference on Saturday, and I'm unable to go, partly because of a clash with the AUT's own investigative committee. Here is my email back to the General Secretary of the AAUP, Roger Bowen
Further to my previous email I'm writing to confirm that I'm unable to attend the AAUP gathering in Milan because of a clash with the first meeting of the AUT's Investigative Commission into supporting Israeli and Palestinian Academics. Thanks for the invitation.
The moves for a boycott of Israeli Universities are a dangerous development in academic life. They show a light-mindedness about academic freedom and a demonising attitude to Israel. Very many academics around the world are worried about this development, and, up till now, the AAUP has been an important voice against such boycotts.
So I'm also writing to express very serious concerns about the composition of this conference and the list of names that you have attending. My understanding is that, of your carefully selected eighteen experts, at least eight are committed to a full academic, cultural, and economic boycott of Israel. Why do you weight the conference so strongly to the very small minority who are strongly opposed to the AAUP's position? These are the people attending who are in favour of the boycott:
Omar Barghouti, Tel Aviv University
Yehudith Harel, Tel Aviv University
Rema Hammami, Birzeit University
Lisa Taraki, Birzeit University
Sondra Hale, University of California, Los Angeles
Shireen Hassim, University of Witwatersrand
Hilary Rose, City University
Ur Schlonsky, University of Geneva
Your panel is imbalanced geographically and politically. You do not represent the important Palestinian opponents of the boycott, such as Professor Sari Nusseibeh and Professor Munther S. Dajani of Al Quds University, nor those who are involved in joint projects with Israeli academics, such as Dr Nabeel Kassis at Birzeit, or members of the editorial board at Israel-Palestine Journal. Neither do you represent that very strong strain of opinion that looks for positive ways to build links between Israeli academics, clearly and actively opposes the occupation but is not supportive of the boycott: on this, you should see the recent article by Judith Butler in Radical Philosophy (Jan. 2006), and you should, I think, have invited Professor Butler.
My point is not that you ought to promote my co-thinkers. I don't agree entirely with Butler, or Kassis, or Dajani. But your panel is terribly skewed towards marginal, unrepresentative, and absolutist positions, now widely discredited in the UK. I note, further, that you seem to have included only one speaker from the UK: the prominent advocate of boycotts Professor Hilary Rose. In view of the fact that British academics overwhelmingly rejected the boycott within the AUT, does this count as 'careful selection of experts'? What are your criteria of selection? No single branch of the AUT endorsed the boycotts of Haifa and Bar-Ilan, and yet your 'very careful selection' includes not a single opponent of the boycott from Britain, and so, intentionally or not, massively misrepresents the views of UK academia.
Why did you not invite:
Dr. David Hirsh, from Goldsmith's College, London University? David is editor of Engage
Professors Blakemore, Noble, Dawkins or Yudkin, authors of the key paper in Nature on scientific Boycotts?
Dr. John Strawson, Reader at the University of East London, and part of the Law Faculty at Birzeit?
Dr David Seymour, from the University of Lancaster
Professor Robert Fine, from the University of Warwick, an opponent both of Apartheid, and of the Academic boycott of South Africa?
Professor Istvan Pogany, also from Warwick University, and an expert on the 'Anti-Zionist' purges of Jewish academics in Eastern Europe?
Dr Jeffrey Ketland, Philosophy, at the University of Edinburgh?
Professor Mark Eisenstadt, from the Open University?
Professor Shalom Lappin, from Kings College London?
Professor Emeritus Norman Geras, from Manchester University?
Prof. Jeff Weintraub, organizer of a big online petition against the boycott?
Dr Miriam Schelssinger, from Bar-Ilan University, sacked for being an Israeli?
Do none of these people, none of them, count as experts? And why did you leave it so late to get a representative panel, so that practical difficulties make it nearly impossible for those who represent both the big majority view in the UK, those who are building positive relationships with Israeli and Palestinian academics to attend? Why did you not take the trouble to get in touch sooner, in order to get a much better picture of those in the UK who are expert on this matter? I would have been happy to help.
I wish you well with the conference, but, in view of the above concerns, I'm afraid it will have little standing with me or, I suspect with many members of the AAUP.
I'd be grateful if you could respond, since I don't want to get the facts here wrong, in any public comment.
The Gen Secretary of the AAUP got back to me, and, indeed, we both got a couple of the facts wrong. He thought that Shireen Hassim was not a supporter of boycotts, but I pointed out that she was a signatory of the PACBI call. He pointed out that yet another one of the attenders Salim Vally, was an advocate of boycotts. So that's up to nine. He told me that he had indeed invited Butler, Dajani and Nusseibeh, but they were unable to make it. And he apologized for the lateness in contacting me.
Here is my response to Roger:
Numbers aren't really the issue. But the debate is nothing like a 50/50 matter. Of course the boycotters have dropped everything to attend, because you have offered them a route into the AAUP. Sari Nusseibeh is doubtless too busy running Al Quds University to indulge in this debate. But you didn't contact those in Britain who opposed the boycott on the basis of an extended notion of academic freedom, and on support for peace - (and opposition to the occupation).
You've provided a space for people who wished to institute a Campus watch policing operation into academic life, without gathering around those who are working for positive links. Of course, this is partly a problem of your no-shows, and of logistical problems, but the consequence is that the AAUP is providing a fantastic opportunity and jolly for the very people who pose a serious threat to academic freedom. And you've helped to revive a political campaign that caused terrible damage to my union, until it was defeated - and did absolutely nothing to support Palestinian students and teachers.
I think you should postpone the conference until you can get a much more representative panel.
And I'm very sorry to have to say that to a colleague and a trade unionist.
Finally in his response, Roger said that the aim of the conference was 'to invite critical-minded folks to help us think through our statement, perhaps with the result that it will be strengthened.' (This email is cited without the author's permission)
So, clearly, the AAUP statement is up for grabs, and up for grabs at a meeting at which the boycotters are massively overrepresented, where it's thought that they will help the AAUP to 'think through its statement'.
Some important points should be made. Obviously, we are in favour of debate, and we relied on the power of argument in the AUT. We don't want to silence anyone, and we don't think the boycott should never be discussed. But there comes a point where the parameters of the debate become so far skewed in one direction that the process can't be a reasonable, careful, deliberative process. The no-shows, the logistical problems, the poor preparation all mean that the AAUP gathering has crossed that line. The AAUP is now in danger of reviving a campaign that poses a serious threat to academic freedom, and offers nothing to Palestinian students and academics. And there is a context: with the victory of the open anti-semites of Hamas in the election to the PLC, a boycott of Israeli academics worsens rather than contributes to the prosepects for peace. The AAUP should pay attention to the statement of Sari Nusseibeh:
"Of all possible bridges to burn as a form of "well- intentioned" political pressure, the boycott of academic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians should be excluded or avoided. Indeed, the hypothesis implies that such cooperation should be fostered and expanded.
By extension, an international academic boycott of Israel, on pro Palestinian grounds, is self- defeating: it would only succeed in weakening that strategically important bridge through which the state of war between Israelis and Palestinians could be ended, and Palestinian rights could there for be restored. Instead of burning that bridge the international academy should do everything within its power to strengthen it, including, foremost, through its own collaborative intervention."
But they won't be able to pay attention, because neither Sari Nusseibeh nor any other Palestinian (or British) opponent of the boycott will be at the conference, and nine advocates of the boycott will be, busily trying to revive their discredited campaign
The conference should be postponed, until a more reasonable and balanced panel can be assembled.
Chair of Engage
Email from Ed Beck, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, to Roger Bowen, General Secretary AAUP:
To: Roger Bowen, General Secretary, American Association of University Professors
From: Scholars for Peace in the Middle East Board of Directors
Re: AAUP Bellagio Conference in February
In spring 2005, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East www.spme.net , a faculty-to-faculty organization of over 700 members at 200 campuses world-wide addressing issues of anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism, solicited and welcomed AAUP's condemnation of the AUT Academic Boycott of Haifa and Bar-Ilan University scholars. Many SPME members are members of AAUP. We were therefore dismayed to learn that the AAUP was holding a conference on academic boycotts at Bellagio, and that most of those invited to attend are boycott proponents.
As you may recall, in addition to AAUP, important academic societies such as the American Academy of Sciences and even the Middle Eastern Studies Association issued statements opposing the AUT boycott. Hebrew University President Menachem Magidor and Ql-Quds University President, Sari Nusseibeh decried the boycott.
Many eminent scholars from the United Kingdom, The United States and Israel who supported the efforts of AUT members to reverse a procedurally flawed resolution that separated the AUT from the academic world seem not to have been invited.
SPME calls upon you make public the purpose of the conference.
SPME would condemn, in the strongest terms any statement that would enable a renewal of the disgraceful actions of the AUT against Israel or similar actions by any group against scholars from any country. We urge AAUP to remain unequivocal in its opposition to boycotts and other attempts to silence scholars.
We urge you to clarify AAUP's position on this issue as soon as possible. Please respond to SPME's President, Dr. Edward Beck at ScholarsforPeace@aol.com .
Edward S. Beck, Ed.D., CCMHC, NCC, LPC, President
Walden University, Alvernia College, Susquehanna Institute
Board of Directors
Jonathan Adelman, Ph.D., University of Denver
Steven Albert, Ph.D., MPH, University of Pittsburgh
Phyllis Chesler, Ph.D., City U. of New York
John R. Cohn, MD, Thomas Jefferson University
Donna Robinson Divine, Ph.D., Smith College
Stanley Dubinsky, Ph.D., U. of South Carolina
Rev. India E. Garnett, M.Div. Treasurer, Harrisburg PA Chapter, United Church of Christ
Rabbi Peter Haas, Ph.D. Case Western Reserve U.
Judith Jacobson, Dr. P.H., Vice President, Columbia U.
Efraim Karsh, Kings College U. of London
Richard Landes,Ph.D. Boston U.
Ruth Lichtenberg-Contreras, Ph.D., Secretary, U. of Vienna and Natural History Museum of Vienna
Allan Lipton, MD, Penn State College of Medicine, Milton S. Hershey Medical Center
Robert S. Mirin, Esq., Harrisburg, PA
G.S. Don Morris, Ph.D.,California Polytechnic U./Wingate Institute IL
Nidra Poller, Novelist, Paris, France
Philip Carl Salzman,Ph.D. McGill U.
Gerald Steinberg, Ph.D., Bar Ilan U.
Laurie Zoloth, Ph.D., Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern U.
Reply from Roger Bowen to SPME:
Dear Mr. Beck:
It concerns me that egregious misinformation regarding the AAUP's conference in Bellagio is being disseminated.
The conference is supported by three separate American foundations. We are inviting about 20 or 21 scholars from seven different nations to comment on our Committee A (Academic Freedom and Tenure)'s Statement on Academic Boycotts. That Statement denounces academic boycotts as affronts to academic freedom, the same position the AAUP has taken for over 90 years and for the same reason we were quick to condemn the AUT call for boycotting Israeli universities last spring.
Yes, it is true that 8 or 9 of the 20 scholars invited (certainly not "most," as you have apparently been told) favored the AUT call to boycott two Israeli universities, including Israelis, English, Americans, South Africans, and Palestinians. The Cuban conferee, we expect, opposes boycotts, especially economic ones that negatively affect academic exchanges. I should add that four distinguished Palestinian scholars who opposed the AUT call for an academic boycott were invited but declined, for different but understandable reasons.
Our conference intends to hear BOTH sides of the issue, yet I can assure you that the AAUP Statement is in final form--it will not be amended, it will not be subjected to a vote. Our policies and practices for over 90 years permit only our Committee A to alter its statements, and our Committee A has already endorsed the Statement. In brief, our principles--in support of academic freedom and therefore vehemently opposed to academic boycotts--will not change as a result of the conference.
It is BECAUSE we are confident in the intellectual and ethical integrity of our Statement that we can subject it to debate and discussion. The AAUP itself does not boycott ideas that are different from our own.
I trust you will convey these views to those who are, wittingly or unwittingly, misrepresenting what for the AAUP is a legitimate academic discussion.
Roger W. Bowen
Reply from Ed Beck to Roger Bowen:
Dear Mr. Bowen,
Thank you for your reply to Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. It is reassuring to know that AAUP is not retreating from is its long held position of denouncing academic boycotts.
Nevertheless, concern must be expressed that by funding boycott proponents to engage in a " legitimate academic discussion," you are giving credibility and legitimacy to their stand and action, which sends a confusing message to our academic colleagues. Therefore you should not be surprised that colleagues who were once threatened by this action are quite concerned about the intent of the conference.
AAUP has taken a position, which was universally recognized by an overwhelming majority of academics as an enlightened and affirmative position, consistent with its philosophy of over 90 years. Why would AAUP want to go backwards to continue to debate an issue that, by your own admission, is not a legitimate academic tactic. Why bother to continue to debate an issue where you have such a long and consistent stand. If you have decided that world is round, why are you going back to discuss the world is flat? What is your purpose and what message are you trying to send out to those who look to you for guidance when the very academic freedom you seek to protect is threatened by those who would separate themselves and others from the academic community?
You give the appearance that the issue is still open for debate. This continues
to give it legitimacy, which is of tremendous concern to many of us. The very debate alone empowers those persistent in the boycott effort to continue, which unfortunately is not an academic discussion, but a real life act of bigotry and discrimination which requires mobilization of precious resources to combat and creates more misunderstandings and problems than it resolves.
Those of us seeking clarification about this conference and who may ask you to reconsider this conference are the victims of academic bias and bigotry by colleagues who misuse their positions to foster misinformation, fabrication and falsification for other than academic purposes.
SPME will share your response with our colleagues, but I am not confident that your response will eliminate the concerns of many of our members and members of the world academic community. I have not seen "egregious misinformation" perpetuated about the conference. I have seen genuine concern about the wisdom of holding such a conference and empowering some of your invitees with legitimacy. Your response suggests that there may be something about which to be concerned. It is not our intent to misrepresent AAUP's intent, but we would be remiss in not expressing our concerns. However, in fairness to you, we will share your response with our membership and others who share our concerns.
Edward S. Beck, Ed.D., CCMHC, NCC, LPC, President, SPME