In what has nearly become a perverse, recurring rite of spring, and yet more evidence that universities have become, as Abigail Thernstrom has described them, “islands of repression in a sea of freedom,” the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), which represents some 14,500 members, voted in early April “to cease all cultural and academic collaboration with Israel, including the exchange of scientists, students and academic personalities, as well as cooperation in research programmes [sic].”
Why employ academic boycotts against Israeli academic institutions? Because, its union members say, the union should “step up its campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against the apartheid state of Israel until it lifts its illegal siege of Gaza and its illegal occupation of the West Bank, and agrees to abide by International law and all UN Resolutions against it.”
But facts and history are not the concern of the morally-elevated, self-righteous professoriate. Based on this politically-charged, biased language, the boycotters expose that they have, with the breathtaking certainty that only the very sanctimonious and intellectually elite can do, framed the 65 year-old Israeli/Palestinian conflict in such a way that they have determined precisely which side is worthy of opprobrium and which, by virtue of its perennial victimhood, is worthy of complete moral support.
Then, in a disingenuous moral inversion in which academics are forced to assume personal responsibility for a state’s politics and diplomacy, all Israeli scholars are made culpable for the perceived sins of the Jewish state. “BDS is a noble non-violent method of resisting Israeli militarism, occupation and apartheid, and there is no question that Israel is implementing apartheid policies against the Palestinians,” said Jim Roche, a lecturer in the DIT School of Architecture and member of the TUI Dublin Colleges Union branch who proposed the boycott motion. “Indeed, many veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa have said that it’s worse than what was experienced there.”
Reciting this list of Israel’s continuing human rights abuses against the long-suffering Palestinians is, of course, a favorite pastime of the academic Left, in the U.S., Britain, and Ireland (not to mention, ironically, inside of Israel’s own universities), so it is no surprise that the litany of Marxist-tainted protests against the victim group of the moment show themselves here as justification for the shunning of Israel scholars from campuses worldwide. The problem, however, is that this view of Israel is the result of a long campaign of historical distortion, outright lies, and propaganda on the part of the Arab world and their apologists and fellow travelers in the West.
That academics so carelessly throw about politically-loaded, and inaccurate, terms when discussing Israel and sanctifying the Palestinians, words like “apartheid,” “occupation,” and “militarism,” indicates exactly why a boycott that seeks to make absolute moral judgments is bound to be perilous—especially for academics who give the pretense of standing for values of academic freedom, scholarly inquiry, a respect for history and law, and open debate over a complex geopolitical problem.
A boycott barring all Israeli academics from participating in Irish academic endeavors is also defective because it necessarily must assume that all Israeli scholars—regardless of their political orientation and social values—are painted with the same moral brush and deserve to be condemned and excluded merely because of the perceived political sins of the nation in which they live.
Critics of the called-for boycott, and there are many who have voiced immediate and thunderous opposition, both of the current Irish version and also of similar academic boycotts in Britain, wondered aloud why, of all countries on earth—countries where actual and chronic repression, genocide, occupation, militarism, and subjugation do exist—was Israel being singled out for the academics’ disdain. Many, of course, ascribe the obsession with Israeli faults as being symptomatic, and an outgrowth of, a more serious concern: Europe’s long sickness of anti-Semitism.
Assuming that the Irish union is actually innocent of this pernicious hatred, and that their sanctimonious effort to right the perceived wrongs done to the Palestinians is, though misconceived, sincere, what is the just cause or set of values they purport to defend with their boycott? If they take the outrageous first step of denying Israeli academics any discourse at all in what is usually called “the academic marketplace of ideas,” of banishing them from the world of dialogue, research, and learning, have not they already struck a fatal blow to the core guiding principle of the academy? Since when has it been the responsibility of the university to control the actions of the state, or for its members to share culpability for the political decisions of a nation?
And if the union members in fact feel that academics shape and influence national policy and political behavior, their choice of the Palestinians, with their legacy of homicidal aggression against Israel, seems a bit troublesome. What should not be lost on observers is that in the Union’s decision to condemn and boycott Israeli academics, they therefore affirm the perceived ideological superiority of the Palestinian side of the moral equation. They have embraced ‘Palestinianism’ completely as their choice of a cause to defend—with the genocidal terrorism, rabid anti-Semitism, political truculence, internecine violence, and general despair that has defined the Palestinian cause since it was minted in the 1960s as a political tool against Israel.
Roche himself openly declared his allegiance to the Palestinian cause, confirming, if there was any doubt, that “The unanimous passage of this motion that shows that the Palestinian struggle for freedom, of which academic freedom is a key part, resonates with TUI members and sends a strong message of solidarity to their counterparts in Palestine.” That message of solidarity sounds very benign, and possibly helps Mr. Roche and his fellow union members feel good about themselves, but their academic “counterparts in Palestine,” as he calls them, have continued to practice the perverse indoctrination and teaching of terror in their “struggle for freedom.” When Hamas formed its cabinet after being voted into office, for example, 13 of its ministers had been teachers at either at the Islamic University in Gaza or at the Al-Najah National University in Nablus.
In fact, says Matthew Levitt, director of The Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Terrorism, Intelligence, and Policy, with some 11,000 students, Al-Najah is the largest university in the territories and “the terrorist recruitment, indoctrination and radicalization of students for which al-Najah is known typically take place via various student groups,” among them the Hamas-affiliated Islamic Bloc. “Of the thirteen members of Al-Najah’s 2004 student council, eight,” he says—“including the chairperson—belong to Hamas’s Islamic Bloc.”
Perhaps TUI members have forgotten that sometimes Palestinian students take their ideological lead from college administrators who are not hesitant to make their political feelings know. In fact, Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University, took the opportunity during a 2002 appearance on Al-Jazeera to congratulate the mother of a suicide bomber with whom he appeared by rhapsodizing, “When I hear the words of Umm Nidal, I recall the verse [from the Koran] stating that ‘Paradise lies under the feet of mothers.’ All respect is due to this mother; it is due to every Palestinian mother and every female Palestinian who is a Jihad fighter on this land.”
The Irish boycotters may be frustrated that Israeli academics have not been influenced by their own government’s oppressive actions, but the same cannot be said of students at Bir Zeit University, when they actively participated in student government activities. “During student elections at Bir Zeit University in 2003,” Leavitt recounts, “Hamas candidates reenacted suicide bombings by blowing up models of Israeli buses. In one Bir Zeit campus debate, a Hamas candidate taunted his Fatah challenger by boasting, ‘Hamas activists in this University killed 135 Zionists. How many did Fatah activists from Bir Zeit kill?’”
But even the tranquility of the university setting, where this ideological stew can normally boil unmolested, was shattered with the 2007 internecine violence in Gaza between factions of Hamas and Fatah. Though the Irish lecturers excoriated Israel because, as one of their complaints went, it causes “disruption under checkpoint, closure and curfew regimes, and arrests, [and] beatings and killing of both students and teachers,” the “sanctity” of the Palestinian college setting was forgotten in 2007 when PA forces, believing it was being used as a staging area for Hamas rocket launches, stormed the 17,000-student Islamic University in Gaza, setting the entire campus ablaze, destroying books in its library , and gutting offices, classrooms, and the student center. Apparently the concept of academic freedom had to be revoked here, since virtually every leading figure of Hamas has taught or studied at Islamic University.
The notion that universities ought to facilitate a range of opinions and ways of thinking about complex issues should be at the core of academic freedom and a university’s overall mission. It requires, though, that campuses allow many different views and perspectives, and do not try to exclude unpopular thought from being heard in the proverbial marketplace of ideas. Concern for the long-suffering Palestinians may be a commendable effort, but the isolation and demonization of Israeli scholars as a tool for seeking social justice for that one group “represents a profound betrayal of the cardinal principle of intellectual endeavour,” observes commentator Melanie Phillips, “which is freedom of speech and debate,” something universities should never stop diligently defending.
In fact, Phillips, in speaking about a similar boycott initiated in 2006 by the British teacher’s union, lamented how, in that instance, British academics, with a long tradition of learning, had incredulously shamed that legacy and that their action, as she put it, “represents a profound betrayal of the cardinal principle of intellectual endeavour, which is freedom of speech and debate.” The act of condemning Israel’s universities, of excluding them from the fellowship of the international academic community, was, Phillips thought, a disgraceful calumny that contradicted all those values that the university should, and usually does, hold dear. Instead, the boycotters have begun to behave in a repressive, unethical, and morally-questionable way.
“Censorship, suppression of ideas and intellectual intimidation are associated with totalitarian regimes,” Phillips said, “which attempt to coerce people into the approved way of thinking.” As Hamas shuts downs internet cafes, promotes genocidal incitement against Jews, murders its political foes, and begins introducing Islamic law in Gaza, one wonders if the Irish Union, in their misguided quest to make academic inquiry and unfettered learning flourish in the Levant, perhaps has chosen the wrong horse to ride.