The director of the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies has come under fire for signing an online open letter that critics say identifies him as supporting an academic boycott of Israel.
Zachary Lockman signed the letter at www.academicboycott.org a few weeks ago, joining about 475 academics from around the world, including several others at NYU. The controversy centers around one phrase in the letter, which identifies "the undersigned" as "defenders of Palestinian academic freedom and supporters of the academic boycott against Israel."
Lockman said he sees the defenders and supporters as separate groups; others have not.
The letter challenges Israeli academics who criticize a growing international boycott of Israeli research and scholars to look inward at their government's policies, which the letter says impede Palestinians' rights to education through roadblocks, checkpoints, harassment, arrests, shootings and assaults.
Martin Kramer, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, a publication put out by the Middle East Forum, a think tank, spotted Lockman's signature on the letter. In an op-ed published both on his weblog and in The New York Sun on April 1, Kramer criticized Lockman and urged the public to complain to NYU Provost David McLaughlin.
The provost's office received "a good number" of letters about Kramer's op-ed, though it "wasn't in the hundreds," university spokesman John Beckman said.
Lockman and McLaughlin sent clarifying letters to the Sun in response, saying that Lockman was calling for Palestinian academic freedom and debate.
"As I see it, this whole thing is a bunch of crap," Lockman told WSN. "I don't support a boycott of Israeli scholars or Israeli academic centers, and the Kevorkian Center doesn't advocate or practice such a boycott."
Individual or NYU director?
Kramer also criticized Lockman for signing the letter as director of the Kevorkian Center. His signature originally appeared on the letter as "Lockman, Zachary, Director, Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, New York University USA." The letter has since been changed to identify him as an NYU professor.
"This was not a 'Don't buy California grapes' boycott, or even a mere petition for Palestinian academic freedom," Kramer wrote to WSN in an e-mail. "It was a letter in favor of an academic boycott of Israel, which, as Provost McLaughlin has reiterated, has no place at New York University."
"By signing the petition, professor Lockman showed incredible insensitivity to the institutional responsibilities he assumed when he became director of the Kevorkian Center," he wrote.
Kramer and other Lockman critics focus on the fact that the Kevorkian Center receives federal funding - $632,000, according to Middle East Forum numbers - under Title VI of the 1965 Higher Education Act, which aims to promote academic programs that increase American "security, stability and economic vitality."
"Israel is a strong ally of the United States," said Jonathan Calt Harris, managing editor of Campus Watch, a Middle East Forum program that monitors Middle Eastern studies programs in North America. "The last thing we need is his position partially funded by us, slamming allies in the Middle East, of which there are few."
However, Lockman said he signed the letter as an individual, adding more information for "identification purposes."
"I put it down simply because that's my primary affiliation with NYU at this point," Lockman said. "I don't think that the fact that I hold the position of director of this center should stop me from expressing my opinion on issues of public concern."
Lockman said he "regularly" signs petitions and letters.
"I signed it, as I said in that statement, as an individual," he said. "I don't speak for the center when I sign such a thing."
Lockman signed the letter, he said, because he believes Israeli academics are being hypocritical.
"If you are going to oppose a boycott as an assault on academic freedom, you have a responsibility to speak out against your own government's actions that might violate Palestinian academic freedom," Lockman said. "I signed it as a matter of principle."
'Poorly phrased and imprecisely worded'
McLaughlin's statement blames the misunderstanding on the letter itself, calling it "poorly phrased and imprecisely worded."
Lockman compared the statement "defenders of Palestinian academic freedom and supporters of the academic boycott against Israel" to a statement like "Republicans and Democrats."
"I read that as some of the people signing this statement see themselves of defenders of academic freedom, and others might endorse the boycott," Lockman said.
Though he acknowledged that the letter might be imprecise and could be read as if he supported a boycott, Lockman said he knew what he was signing.
"Before I sign something, I do read it carefully," Lockman said. "I have a very clear position that I've been very consistent about for a very long time."
Several other professors and doctoral candidates at NYU also signed the letter.
"I signed an open letter that calls, essentially, for public debate," said Khaled Fahmy, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at NYU. "This is not a call for a boycott ... I wouldn't have signed it if I thought of it as imprecise."
Lockman said he didn't know who made the Web site, which does not list an author, though Kramer identifies the drafters as Lawrence Davidson, a professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, and Mona Baker, a professor at the University of Manchester in England.
Nor did Lockman remember who sent him a link to the site. He also said he didn't know who Menachem Magidor is, to whom the letter is addressed.
"I don't know anything about him," Lockman said. "I really don't."
Magidor is the president of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has moved to create an organization to oppose the academic boycott of Israel, according to the Canada-based Society of Academic Freedom and Scholarship.
NYU supports Lockman's explanation.
"I think it's clear that many reasonable people looking at that letter don't see them as separate," Beckman said. "I also think that we have to take professor Lockman at his word."
Lockman blasted Kramer for not contacting him before the op-ed ran.
"If [Kramer] had bothered to pick up the telephone and call me, he would find out that I don't endorse a boycott of scholars," Lockman said. "The fact that he didn't do that tells me that he's acting in bad faith. He's not interested in the truth of whether I support the boycott."
But Kramer doesn't buy it.
"What's the point of signing such a challenge to opponents of the boycott, if your own position is also opposed to the boycott?" he wrote Saturday on his weblog.