June 15, 2007

Academic "freedom" fighters avoid debate

There's quite a crop of letters in today's Guardian regarding the boycott debate and Finkelstein. Here's some on the boycott debate:
Certain of your correspondents appear to be operating under a misapprehension (Letters, June 12). The recent decision of the University and College Union congress was to organise a debate on whether an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions would be an appropriate response to the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. It was not a decision to inaugurate such a boycott. We are perplexed at the suggestion that there is something improper or undesirable about such a debate.

The opponents of the boycott debate argue that a boycott is inimical to academic freedom, yet they are engaged in a campaign of vilification and intimidation in order to prevent a discussion of this issue. While defending academic freedom, therefore, they seem only too willing to make an assault on the freedom of speech. The UCU congress and its members have a right, and arguably a duty, to confront the ethical and political challenge represented by the repression in the occupied territories.

A boycott may not be the appropriate conclusion to the debate, or the most effective action, but it is neither irrational nor anti-semitic to discuss it as one possible response. Some of us are not yet persuaded of the tactical efficacy of a boycott, and may never be so persuaded. Some of us are persuaded. We sense, however, a greater danger to academic freedom and collegiality: the increasingly hysterical and often offensive attempts to close down discussion of what must be one of the central moral and political challenges of our age.
Professor Jacqueline Rose
Queen Mary, University of London
Professor William Outhwaite
University of Sussex
Dr Gillian Scott
University of Brighton
Michael Rosen and six others

· Passing Al Quds University entrance in Jerusalem recently I was shocked to see it surrounded by the separation wall, with one tiny entrance guarded by an Israeli soldier. Palestinians there told me they wanted to go into the university and study but were being refused entry. I asked the soldier to let them in and he refused, so I asked him why and he simply said "I'm under orders". I talked to him for a while about their human rights and about academic freedom and he just repeated that he was "under orders".

I was not sure about an academic boycott up to that point - the incident changed my mind. Now I think the ball is in the court of those who oppose the boycott and claim that it will be "bad for Palestinians" and "bad for academic freedom" (advert in the Guardian on June 13) to explain how they will campaign for academic rights for the Palestinians - the conditions are so bad that silence is no longer acceptable. The best way to avoid a boycott is to get rid of such "orders" and the occupation so that people can live and study in freedom; when there is equality of educational opportunities there will be no need for a boycott.
Garth Hewitt
Honorary canon of St George's Cathedral, Jerusalem, and guild vicar of All Hallows on the Wall, London

· The UCU has called for discussion of an academic boycott of Israel. Its general secretary, Sally Hunt, makes it clear (Letters, June 14) that she opposes a boycott and would like the issue put to a ballot of all members. My own union the National Union of Journalists has gone much further. A motion passed at its conference calling for a boycott of Israeli goods is now union policy. Yet our general secretary sits on his hands, refusing to give leadership on this issue. Many NUJ members who value their reputations as impartial journalists are dismayed and embarrassed by their union's stance. Don't they at least deserve a ballot?
Rory Cellan-Jones

· I fully accept that supporters of the academic boycott of Israel are not necessarily anti-semitic. Can they accept that Jewish opponents of the boycott are not necessarily supporters of Israeli policy regarding Palestinians?
Dr Simon Katzenellenbogen
Here's two on Finkelstein:
Perhaps the most depressing story (among many) this week is the report of De Paul University's refusal of tenure to its distinguished scholar Norman Finkelstein (Report, June 12). First, because the decision makes a mockery of academic freedom. In my view, Finkelstein's writings and arguments have never failed to meet the criterion of academic quality, although many have disagreed with them. Second, because 9/11 really does seem to have revivified McCarthyism in the US. Finkelstein has been vilified by those who have simply smeared the arguments with which they were unwilling to engage. Everyone familiar with Alan Dershowitz's responses to those who have attempted to reasonably debate the allegations Dershowitz made in response to Finkelstein's reviews of his The Case for Israel can have little doubt about the stronger argument.

And third, because while we have Finkelstein always ready to debate openly, on the other hand, we have his chief prosecutor, Dershowitz, declaring that any attempt by UK universities, or their employees, to advocate a boycott of Israeli academic institutions will be met with legal action. Finkelstein's very livelihood is casually dismissed. I hope a British (or European) university steps forward to prove that we retain values the US has found all too dispensable.
Professor Wade Mansell
University of Kent

· Controversial Finkelstein's scholarship may be, but few academics have suffered so many ad hominem attacks. It's clear the boycott tactic is alive and kicking in the US. The UCU should take no lessons on the subject from that source.
Professor Pól Ó Dochartaigh
Aldergrove, Co Antrim

And here's a couple on Gaza but I didn't like one of them so, in the interests of balance, I'm not copying either.


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