The latest news from Britain is that the Association of University Teachers (AUT) boycott of two Israeli universities has been overturned. The boycott, rammed through by a virulently anti-Israel faction on a Friday afternoon before Passover almost without discussion, put Britain's university faculty union into universal disrepute. But the threat to academic integrity is not over; in fact, there are disturbing signs of faculty-led boycotts and other activities in the United States.
Though largely ignored in the United States, a number of British newspapers came out strongly against the AUT boycott, and fair-minded faculty members across Europe, and indeed the world, came together with resignations, declarations, and strongly worded petitions. Israel is not South Africa, boycotts and antithetical the university life, and Zionism is not racism. Even Sari Nusseibeh of Al-Quds University spoke out against the boycott, a stance for which he was condemned by many Palestinian academics.
Many details of the AUT boycott remain unknown in the US, especially the instrumental role played by leading anti-Zionist academic Ilan Pappe of Haifa University. If nothing else it has proven once again that simply being born Israeli not make an academic sympathetic to Jewish nationalism, or even, in a larger sense, Israeli. Parties concerned about the new Israel Studies chair at Columbia University would be well advised to keep this in mind, given that key members of the search committee are hostile to the very concept of Israel, as are several of the leading Israeli candidates for the position.
But more importantly, the type of anti-Israeli activism represented the by the AUT boycott is already present in North America. Motivated not simply by advocacy for Palestinians but by deep hostility to the idea of Israel, and supported by a wide variety of groups outside academia, the next threats to academic integrity are better established than many realize.
There are already numerous American academic signatories to boycott petitions, including many who are well known from the crisis surrounding Middle East Studies at Columbia, such as Joseph Massad, Hamid Dabashi and Mahmood Mamdani, as well as lesser known figures, such as Ammiel Alcalay of Queens College, Ella Shohat of New York University, May Seikaly of Wayne State, and dozens of others. While the American Association of University Professors spoke out weakly against the AUT boycott, a wide network of anti-Israel organizations were energized. They are moving ahead on a number of fronts.
Best known of these is divestment. Individual efforts to force universities to divest from Israel have been unsuccessful, thanks in part to forceful statements from academic leaders such as Harvard president Lawrence Summers. But at lesser known institutions there has been some movement. On April 27, 2005 the Association of University of Wisconsin Professionals (TAUWP) adopted a resolution that calls on the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents to divest from companies that invest in Israel. The UW-Platteville faculty body became the first in the United States to adopt a resolution calling for divestment from companies working with Israel.
The resolution was part of the University of Wisconsin Divest from Israel Campaign, a project led by Al-Awda Wisconsin (The Palestine Right to Return Coalition) and Alternative Palestinian Agenda, along with several local social justice, student, and community organizations. The campaign gained momentum when the Faculty Senate of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville passed a similar resolution on January 25th 2005, but it failed with the Faculty senate at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater on February 1st, 2005. A similar resolution was adopted by the University of Wisconsin Teaching Assistant Association on April 29 after it was broadened to include military contractors in general.
The involvement of faculty unions is an ominous development that gives added weight to the more than two dozen individual divestment campaigns underway at different universities. The leading groups sponsoring divestment campaigns, such as Al-Awda, are strong advocates of the "one state solution," that is to say, the extinction of Israel and the submergence of Jews into an Islamic Middle East. The successful divestment campaign in the Presbyterian Church, and those pending in the United Church of Christ and the World Council of Churches, and being considered by the United Methodist Church, are also new fronts in the continuing assault on Israel. That there is a subtle theological dimension to these can scarcely be doubted given the utterly one-sided nature of their self-righteous declarations.
The transformation of Israel into a pariah state has reached levels in Europe that most American are unaware of, and academics have been at the forefront. That Israel has been singled out as the most egregious of the world's problems suggests that support for Palestinians is merely a means to an end. That end, the abolition of Israel, has been given increasing intellectual legitimacy by faculty members advocating one state, such as NYU's Tony Judt, who invoke the illogic of nationalism and the violence of Israel's birth, as if any nation-state could reach a passing grade according to these criteria.
For some intellectuals opposition to Israel is opposition to nationalism, but curiously only Jewish nationalism has been singled out. For others it is a self-admitted double standard of demanding higher ethical behavior from Jews than anyone else, their own states included. And for still others, we may suspect, it is opposition to Jewish "separatism," that, is, Jewish identity and survival. All these rationales constitute grave threats not merely to Israel, but to the intellectual enterprise, as they seek to reengineer the world to accommodate their own theories, and to edit out that which does not fit.
The violence implicit in an academic boycott, however polite and genteel, as the AUT's no doubt is, cannot be escaped. And neither can the violence the boycotters perpetrate against any remaining claims to moral standing as intellectuals.
Alexander H. Joffe is director of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum that critiques Middle East Studies at North American colleges and universities.