Israeli academics over the holiday weekend slammed a call for a European Union boycott of Israeli academic institutions delivered by 61 Irish academics in a letter sent to The Irish Times. Signatories to the petition, meanwhile, defended their actions.
While complaining that "The Israeli government appears impervious to moral appeals from world leaders and to long-standing United Nations resolutions," the September 16 petition called for "a moratorium on any further [cultural and academic] support to Israeli academic institutions, at both national and European levels."
The petition cited Israel's "policy of violent repression against the Palestinians in the occupied territories, and its aggression against the people of Lebanon" and urged that the "moratorium should continue until Israel abides by UN resolutions and ends the occupation of Palestinian territories."
"It is obvious that there is no universal norm [in the call for boycott], only discrimination," said Dr. Alexander Yakobson in response to the petition. Yakobson, a lecturer in history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, recently authored a book with former MK and renowned legal scholar Amnon Rubinstein entitled Israel and the Family of Nations: The Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights, which confronts anti-Israel activism and discourse.
"The petitioners don't call for a boycott of academic institutions in every country with whose policies they disagree," Yakobson explained. "They don't demand a boycott of Sudan, or of China, which has tremendous academic ties to Europe. And they don't want to boycott the United States or Britain over Iraq. There is no universal norm, they're just anti-Israel. So," he concluded, "we have to ask what it is about Israel that upsets them."
More importantly, for Yakobson, "they don't demand of any Palestinian academic even to disavow terror." This is particularly strange, he believes, since "even when Europe imposed sanctions on the Hamas government, it did not impose them on Palestinian universities. Nobody has even suggested doing this."
In a letter sent to European Commission members and offices late last week, Prof. Yosef Yeshurun of Bar-Ilan University, who chairs the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom (IAB), and Dr. Edward Beck of Walden University, who serves as president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, blasted the boycott, calling it "antithetical to the universal principle of academic freedom."
"The call for an EU boycott of Israeli academia is a betrayal of [academic] values," wrote Yeshurun and Beck. "Academic life is about building bridges, not destroying them; opening minds, not closing them; hearing both sides of an argument, not one alone," they argued.
Yeshurun and Beck's letter, written "on behalf of the 510 international academic members of the IAB and the 6,800 international academic members of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East," called the Irish petition "completely counterproductive to the fostering of peace and understanding in the Middle East," since "academics often have the knowledge and skills specifically needed for conflict resolution. They often work with colleagues and policy makers from opposing sides on developing equitable solutions to complex problems."
Prof. James Bowen of the Department of Computer Science at University College Cork defended on Sunday his signing of the petition.
"Singling schmingling," he told The Jerusalem Post on the phone from Cork in Ireland's southwest. The claim voiced by Yakobson and others that the boycott initiative unfairly singled out Israel was "the typical Israeli attempt to avoid criticism," he declared, and cited his and other signatories' involvement in "boycotting Cork's partnership with Shanghai" in the "solidarity campaign for the Kurds" and other campaigns.
Asked about Hamas's charter and rhetoric, which advocate - often openly - genocide against the Jews in Israel, and whether the signatories to the Irish petition would consider boycotting Palestinian academic institutions due to this policy, Bowen replied, "the accusation of genocide against Hamas is libelous. The responsibility for ending the conflict lies with the aggressor. Israel is the aggressor."
Bowen said that, according to "a perception in the outside world," Israel "has been implementing a policy of slowly tightening the noose [around the Palestinians] in order to get them to emigrate." This policy, Bowen said, was a kind of "slow ethnic cleansing" that must be opposed through "boycotts, divestments and sanctions."
In response to Bowen's comments, Yakobson told the Post that though Bowen himself may participate in other campaigns, "this is true individually, but not in terms of petitions or organizations. The struggle to boycott Israel is immeasurably larger than the one to boycott China, despite the fact that in Tibet there is a concerted official effort to annihilate the Tibetan culture."
Not only is Israel not the sole aggressor in the conflict, says Yakobson, but "It is Hamas, in demanding the destruction of all of Israel, that contradicts the claim that the Israeli occupation is the problem." While emphasizing that he did not support a boycott of Palestinian academia, Yakobson believes that boycotting Israeli academic institutions made it unavoidable.
"If they believe there is a two-state solution, that the occupation is illegitimate," and Israeli academic institutions should therefore be boycotted, Yakobson concluded, "they must also argue for the boycott of Palestinian academic institutions."