dershowitz at bar ilan.
(photo credit: Yoni Reif)
Vigilance is crucial to fighting academic boycotts against Israel; such was the message delivered Wednesday by the British Ambassador to Israel, Simon McDonald, at the opening of the Bar-Ilan University conference on academic freedom.
"We had a success last May," McDonald said, referring to the rescinding of a motion to boycott Israeli academics, which was put forth last April by the Association Of University Teachers, one of Britain's two academic trade unions. "But it is not guaranteed for all time, and conferences like this are vital."
Harvard Law School Prof. Alan Dershowitz, who gave the keynote speech at the conference, argued against the rhetoric of last year's academic boycott attempt and other boycotts against Israel, according to which Israel is a perpetrator of evil on a scale that sets it apart from all other countries.
"No high court in the world today is trying to strike a balance between protection against terrorism and civil liberties like the Israeli high court," Dershowitz said. "I can't imagine an American supreme court ever telling the government how to build a security fence. The Israeli supreme court has been a model for those who believe in judicial activism."
Furthermore, he argued, campaigns against Israel have increased in magnitude precisely as Israeli politics began moving towards the center and making compromises in every respect.
The dangerous message such boycott and divestiture attempts send out, Dershowitz said, is that "No matter how many sacrifices and compromises are made in reality, what we are doing will never be recognized by some people."
Such attempts, he said, also send a message to Palestinian extremists that the effects of anti-Israel propaganda will gradually create an international community no longer supportive of Israel, and thus encourage terrorism.
At the time of the AUT boycott attempt last April, Al Quds University in Jerusalem was the only Arab university to speak out against the boycott. While Al Quds President Sari Nusseibeh could not attend the conference, his colleague, Prof. Said Zeedani, spoke on his behalf.
"We have tried boycotts and embargoes," Zeedani said, "but the problem, as one matures, is that they all carry negative connotations that burn bridges of communication, and we end up at point zero. Communication is the only way towards cooperation, dialogue, reconciliation, and coexistence."
Other speakers at the conference Wednesday included former MK Amnon Rubinstein, of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, and French-Jewish Prof. Shmuel Trigano, one of the prominent academics to speak out about the new anti-Semitism in Europe.
Trigano argued that the recent AUT boycott attempt, like others of its kind, was indicative of an academic world view that took a moral high ground based on the premise of academic liberty and detachment from the political sphere, while playing a major role in arousing anti-Israeli sentiment on Western university campuses.
Such a world view, Trigano said, was "based on the use of theoretical knowledge alone, and a disengagement from reality."
Ronny Fraser, director of the Academic Friends of Israel in the UK, told The Jerusalem Post that one of the important lessons from last year's boycott attempt was that Israel needs its own academic union, in order to form relationships with the British unions.
After discussions on Wednesday at the conference with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Prof. Zvi Cohen, who is chairman of the Coordinating Committee of Faculty Associations in Israel, Fraser said the Israeli committee would be put in touch with the British trade unions.
"I am hopeful that by putting them in contact with each other, they can work together to ensure that similar boycott attempts never occur again," Fraser said.
"The way forward," Fraser said, "is international cooperation with the Jewish communities in the Diaspora and in Israel - the Jewish community in England needs allies both in Britain and the rest of the world to overturn the boycott."
Historian and advocate Anthony Julius, who acted legally on behalf of Bar-Ilan University and the University of Haifa last year following the AUT boycott attempt, said that he believes countering future boycott attempts involves appealing to the large number of neutral academics who are open to persuasion.
Julius, who is currently completing a book on the history of anti-Semitism in England for Oxford University Press, said he believes that the near future doesn't augur well for the demise of the phenomenon.
Like Dershowitz, Julius said he believes that the growth in such anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiment was, paradoxically, a reaction to Israeli concessions being made as part of a peace process.
"I think things are going to get worse, with the Jews and Israel coming under greater pressure,"