Following a successful campaign to persuade the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) to rescind its proposed boycott of Israeli universities last year, a conference on academic freedom opens today at Bar-Ilan University.
"We had decided to wage war on that boycott not so much because of our fear that Bar-Ilan would be hurt by it, but because of our fear that the structure of scientific research in the Western world would be hurt," said Bar-Ilan Rector Yosef Yeshurun.
Following the AUT boycott attempt, Bar-Ilan founded the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, which currently has 450 members worldwide.
While focussing on the proposed boycott of Israel and its relationship to anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, the conference will also discuss the concept of academic freedom in a universal context and examine its implications in different arenas, ranging from North America to China.
Panelists at the conference will include British Ambassador to Israel Simon McDonald, Harvard University Prof. Alan Dershowitz, and Tel Aviv University's Prof. Asa Kasher, among others.
Bar-Ilan University's Prof. Gerald Steinberg, chair of the conference's organizing committee, said that the essence of the conference was to examine whether there are limits to academic freedom - such as, for example, Holocaust denial, or the abuse of the notion of academic freedom for political campaigns.
Prof. Jon Pike of the UK's Open University, who was actively involved in overturning the AUT boycott, said that he believed that last year's initial boycott decision at the AUT was passed undemocratically, and that it was not an appropriate way to criticize the actions of the Israeli government.
"This is not to say we were not concerned by the situation facing Palestinian professors and students, and we are opposed to the occupation of the West Bank," Pike said. "But we thought that aiming to coerce Israeli academics into political agreement was wholly wrong and anti-Semitic."
Pike, who is a philosopher, will devote his talk at the conference to the ethical implications of the rescinded boycott.
He also wanted to underscore, he said, that the same standards of academic freedom demanded by Israelis had to apply to Palestinian academics whose academic freedom was being infringed upon by Israel.
University of London's Prof. David Hirsh, who also actively opposed the AUT boycott, is set to speak in a panel devoted to the ideological foundations of the boycott campaign.
"We share certain criticism of Israel," Hirsh said, "but think the way in which the term 'Zionist' was used during the boycott campaign made it into a term of insult associated with racism and apartheid, rather than with the actuality of Israeli policy."
"The fact that Israel was demonized rather than criticized is problematic," Hirsh added.
While he said he believed that the boycott attempt made by the AUT no longer posed a serious threat for the moment, he said that the politics and ideas behind it were important to examine - especially the notion that Israel was utterly different than any other country, and deserving of particular punishment for what may considered to be the infringement of human rights.