Keep the channels of intellectual communication open

Academic freedom and the lessons of the boycott campaign.

The principles of academic freedom and equality among members of the scientific community have a long and revered history. The right to follow the research trail and search for knowledge without regard to whose toes may be stepped on or whose interests and power threatened is not an empty slogan, to be tossed away by political and ideological fashion. This freedom forms the foundation of liberal Western civilization, and the norms of pluralism and tolerance that are part of this tradition. The term "academic boycott" is, in itself, inherently contradictory, similar to "democratic dictatorship" whether of the "advance guard of the proletariat" or in some other guise. Without champions of academic freedom who were willing to fight for this principle and the right to dissent in the pursuit of knowledge, the teachings of Socrates would not have survived his execution. Similarly, Galileo's discoveries would have been buried with him, and the world would still be flat. The complexities of the process of evolution, and its insights as well as limitations, would still be considered heretical. And the practice of slavery might still be an acceptable norm, to say nothing of depriving women and minorities of basic rights. Following Orwell's scenarios, crackpot theories that serve the interests and ideologies of the dominant political powers would similarly have been enshrined as orthodoxies. Under the Nazis, theories of Aryan racial superiority were part of standard university fare and "Jewish science" was anathema, while the Jews were expelled, or fled, and those who remained were sent to concentration camps. In the heyday of the Soviet empire, the economic superiority of communism was taught as unquestioned gospel, until reality intruded and this superiority turned into dust. Similarly, in other dictatorships - the military juntas of South America, Islamic republics and autocracies of the Middle East, or China's one-party version of democratic centralism - academic freedom was and remains unthinkable. Teachers and researchers who go outside the strict limits set by the sources of political, and in many cases, religious power are censored, harassed, jailed, and in some cases, even murdered. In the Islamic tyrannies, even receiving an email from an Israeli colleague or scientist is a punishable offense. IN THE campaign to boycott Israeli universities one of the common allegations was "the absence of academic freedom" in Israel. Like other Big Lies in recent history this one has been repeated so many times that many start citing it as fact without examining the evidence. Instead of serious analysis of various claims - as would be appropriate to an academic framework, and in which judgment is left until after the data are gathered - in the case of Israel, the judgment comes almost first, after which the "facts" are found to match it. Usually, these are provided by a small number of marginal and obsessive Israelis whose claims are taken at face value and propagated without any independent examination. If the anti-Israel campaigners were to adopt decisions on science or mathematics on the basis of such a process they would soon understand the folly of this procedure. But when it comes to Middle East politics the normal rules of research and rational discourse are suspended. Israeli behavior and policies are not perfect, but even our most virulent Palestinian enemies admit and admire one aspect of Israeli society - its democracy, openness and unfettered free speech, and this certainly applies to the university campuses, classrooms, and publications. Although the five major universities, along with the Technion and the Weizmann Institute, are funded through government budgets (as well as donations and grants), there is no government interference in the substance of the activities. As a result, in every sphere of academic endeavor and research - in the natural sciences, humanities and social sciences - no schools, theories or methodologies are excluded. This is the polar opposite of the claims made by the supporters of the AUT boycott, who have drawn and distorted the experience of the academic boycott of South Africa. That boycott was called in support of two academics jailed by a regime that denied academic freedom, dissent or free speech in any sense of the word, and openly declared itself to be racist. There is absolutely no comparison between the South African boycott movement and the campaign against the Jewish state, other than the exploitation of language and slogans. AN ACADEMIC boycott against Israel or any country, like other forms of discrimination on the grounds of race, religious, sexuality, or gender, is simply unacceptable. The world makes progress toward relieving hunger, enslavement and other forms of suffering precisely as a result of the free flow of ideas and the pursuit of knowledge. By all means, let the debates and arguments continue, and not only in one favored direction. But slamming the door on such debates through the cynical use of academic boycotts opens the door to totalitarianism, hate and a new dark age of myth and superstition. The writer, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, is a member of the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, which is holding a conference on Academic Freedom and the Politics of Boycotts at Bar-Ilan Wednesday and Thursday.