Borderline Views: Red lines for academic freedom

I am no fan of the current government but its ambassadors should be accorded the same respect as those of any other country, including states whose policies towards ethnic minorities and human rights are far more dubious than anything Israel has to offer.

Oxford students protest Ayalon 311 (photo credit: .)
Oxford students protest Ayalon 311
(photo credit: .)
The two most prestigious universities in the UK, Cambridge and Oxford,
were the scenes of some major anti-Israel sentiment last week. At
Oxford, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was verbally threatened
with anti-Semitic remarks during his speech at the Oxford Union, while
the presence of Hamas activist Azim Tamimi, a supporter of terrorist
activity, at a lecture in Cambridge gave rise to a high degree of
anti-Israel sentiment.
At the same time as this was taking place, I was holding a series of
meetings with British university principals and vice chancellors,
meetings which have been going on for a number of years and are aimed
at gauging the official position of the universities to the proposed
academic boycott attempts. Over 30 of these meetings have taken place
and, rather than focus solely on the negative, they have also been
used to promote and strengthen both ongoing and new research
collaboration and links between British and Israeli universities. This
was partially reflected in last week’s reception hosted by the British
Foreign Office for the UK-Israel bilateral research project BIRAX,
funded by the Pears Foundation and with formal support of the British
government and the British Council.
In the meetings, all of the university principals and vice chancellors
state the same mantra, namely that they are opposed to any form of
academic boycott, they reject any form of anti-Semitism (or any other
form of racism) on their campuses and that they believe in the
principles of free and balanced speech at their institutions. For most
of them, Israel is simply not on their agenda as they struggle to deal
with the economic recession and the government cutbacks in the funding
of higher education.
ONE OF the universities most closely associated with anti-Israel
sentiment in the UK is SOAS, the School of Oriental and African
Studies, at the University of London. In recent weeks, it has hosted
both Tamimi and the maverick UK member of Parliament George Galloway
in public meetings which are not so much pro-Palestinian as they are
anti-Israel and spilling over into blatant anti-Jewish sentiment. And
yet SOAS has one of the few full chairs in Israel Studies which also
arranges a diverse and well-balanced seminar series on contemporary
Israel, attracting top scholars and large audiences. The diverse
participants ask hard questions but prove, time after time, that a
civilized discussion can take place, providing that one is not out to
promote their own political viewpoint in the guise of an academic
lecture, as is too often the case with visiting Israeli or Palestinian
Israel’s ambassadors to the US and the UK have both been faced with
hostile audiences at universities in these countries. Readers of this
column will know that I have little sympathy for the policies of the
present government as represented by its deputy foreign minister or
its ambassadors, who do no more than state government policy, but that
does not mean that they should not be accorded the same respect and
attention that ambassadors of any other country are, including
countries whose policies towards ethnic minorities and human rights
are far more dubious than anything Israel has to offer.
THIS LACK of balance on campuses is feeding into the growing sentiment
within the Anglo-Jewish community as a whole that anti-Semitism is on
the rise and that it is increasingly difficult, almost impossible, to
differentiate between criticism of Israel on the one hand, and
anti-Semitism on the other. Not a week goes by without the two major
UK Jewish newspapers – the Jewish Chronicle and Totally Jewish
reporting new incidents of anti-Semitism, many of them on university
That does not make it unsafe to walk the streets as a Jew or as an
Israeli, nor has it resulted in a sudden desire to leave the UK for
Israel or elsewhere. The community is well represented through a host
of public organizations, it knows how to stand up for its rights, and
is it not physically threatened as such.
And yet, one cannot deny the growing sentiment amongst British Jews
that the atmosphere has changed – and the fact that much of it
emanates from the bastion of liberalism and free speech on some of the
campuses, rather than from the traditional right wing and fascists,
makes it all the more difficult to deal with. Nothing different was
ever expected from the racist right wing, but much more was expected
from those places where free speech and balanced discourse is a basic
principle of their existence.
The dissonance between what the vice principals and chancellors say in
their private meetings with me and other representatives of Israeli
universities, and that of their public actions and statements is
becoming too large to tolerate. Academic freedom and the freedom of
speech and debate is an important principle, a principle which cannot
be discarded every time one disagrees with a particular political
point of view expressed by a speaker. But academic freedom has its red
lines, and this requires some form of balance in the presentation of
diverse and contesting opinions.
The use of the mantra “academic freedom” or “freedom of speech” cannot
be used as an excuse for the promotion of racism, anti-Semitism,
incitement against ethnic or religious minorities, or the promotion of
violence in any form, physical or verbal.
If the leaders of the UK universities wish to preserve the rapidly
diminishing public reputation of their institutions, they need to act,
and act soon to put their houses in order. They must draw the lines
between acceptable academic discourse and difference of opinion,
between those who would use their institutions as a guise for
promoting unacceptable and dangerous views. and those who wish to
undertake a harsh, but legitimate, criticism of the policies of this
or that government.
They should actively promote those programs which bring the diversity
of opinion before their student and faculty audiences. And while they
should not give in to every attempt by external political and
community lobbies to silence or ban speakers with whom they do not
agree, they must become more proactive in ensuring that incitement,
violence and hatred are excluded.
Recent events, such as those faced by Ayalon at Oxford, or Michael Oren in the US, do not bode well for the reputation of these universities and it is in the self-interest of the university principals, regardless of their own personal views concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to ensure that the principles of civil discourse are maintained. Failure to do so will, in the long term,
damage the reputation of some of the world’s most prestigious institutions.
The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.