Norway's second-largest university to vote on academic boycott of Israel

November 2, 2009 23:30

Norways second-largest

Academics in Israel and worldwide are fighting against a proposed academic boycott against Israel by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway. The motion for a boycott will be made public on Wednesday, and voted upon at a meeting of the university's board of governors next Thursday, November 12. The boycott would be the first of its kind at a European university. The boycott initiative started with a letter, signed by 34 professors and assistant professors at NTNU and the University College of Sør-Trøndelag, also in Trondheim. NTNU is Norway's second-largest university. The letter read: "We, who have signed this letter, believe that it is time that academic institutions contributed to an international pressure against Israel so that real negotiations between Israel, democratically elected Palestinian authorities and the international society can begin." The letter claims that Israeli universities and other institutions of higher education "have played a key role in the policy of oppression" that the signatories claim exists in Israel. It goes on to say that "Israel goes against all the ideals of open universities and academic freedom." Signatories "believe that an academic boycott can make the seriousness of the present situation clearer to academics and others in Israel." The signatories call on their universities to implement a boycott, which "should cover the educational, research and culture institutions of the state of Israel and their representatives, regardless of religion or nationality. This means that we refrain from participating in any kind of academic or cultural cooperation with Israeli institutions and their representatives until guaranties are issued that the occupation of Palestinian land will be terminated." Those signatories that could be reached refused to comment on their reasons for signing the letter. NTNU professor Bjørn Alsberg is leading the fight against the proposed boycott. He has drafted a petition which has received both local and international support, with 25 NTNU professors, five Nobel Laureates, and over a thousand academics and concerned citizens from around the world among the signatories so far. He told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that his arguments against the boycott were less concerned with the ideology behind it, and "more focused on the damage that will follow and the problems that will, morally and logically, follow from such a boycott." He believes the boycott would be detrimental to his university, and that pressuring Israeli academic institutions is not an effective way to push the government for change. He also thinks that it goes against the very idea of what the university is and should be. "A lot of people find the boycott a problem because of the principle of the university, centrally, taking a political standpoint on behalf of everybody," he said. "I don't think that's the role of the university, and I think this is one of the strongest points against this [boycott]. It's the principle - should you allow a university to make political statements on behalf of everybody?" Alsberg also believes that, if the proposal is accepted, NTNU will have some difficult issues to face. "It means that we have to initiate a completely new process," he said. "You can't really defend a position that this is something we should do only towards Israel. If I had been very critical [of Israel], I would also have to be critical towards other countries violating human rights and so on. We would have to make a new process of using boycott as a weapon." He said that to boycott "only Israel, of all countries, would raise some very unpleasant questions." Dr. Ed Beck is the president of Scholars for Peace, which is working with Alsberg and the other NTNU professors in their struggle. "NTNU is a major Norwegian science and technology university, like the Technion or MIT, and a university of that stature engaging in an academic boycott of Israel, in a country that prides itself on its history of fighting anti-Semitism, is certainly a disappointment and a challenge," he told the Post on Monday night. The organization has already worked to combat similar proposals in Britain and Canada. Beck said that by gathering support from other academics, many of them prominent, a message could be sent to those that would boycott Israeli academics: "As professors and colleagues, if you boycott Israel, you boycott us as well." "This is our way of standing in solidarity with Israeli academics, and telling them that academic boycotts are counter-productive in terms of achieving peace. Many in the peace movement are academics, and boycotts are acts of discrimination that interrupt academic freedom," he said. He explained that, in the world of academia, peer review is paramount, "so when your colleagues put you on the block for your behaviour, your goose is cooked. This is why the British backed down and the Canadians backed down [from their proposed boycotts]." Beck said the support of such respected academics as Nobel Laureates got the message across even more strongly. He has set a goal of collecting 5000 signatures on the Norway petition, but expects to exceed or even double that goal. "We're telling them, cut it out!"  University of Haifa's Rector, Professor Yossi Ben-Artzi, is also anxious to see the boycott stopped. "Academic boycotts serve only to harm academic freedom, impede intellectual advancement and offend universal values," he said in a written statement. He added that "Israel is an enlightened country and the move for a boycott of Israel is clearly based on misinformation and misrepresentation. Israel's universities are of the most active in international research and shared academic endeavours - the results of which are renowned. The University of Haifa, in particular, is carrying out innovative research in conjunction with Norwegian scientists in various fields. I hope that NTNU will promptly reconsider the boycott motion." Ben-Artzi has already approached his counterpart at NTNU, Rector Torbjørn Digernes, to ask him to withdraw the proposal before the meeting. His efforts, however, have been unsuccessful thus far. The Simon Wiesenthal Center's director for international relations, Dr. Shimon Samuels, has already sent a letter to the president of NTNU's Board of Directors, in which he decried Digernes's support for the campaign. "Never since [Vidkun] Quisling [A Norwegian army officer and politician who collaborated with Nazi forces in Norway] has there been such academic prejudice in Norway, and never since Hitler has any University rector in Europe granted it his personal blessing," he wrote. Digernes could not be reached for comment.

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