Saturday, January 27, 2007
MANY people are still thinking about the idea of an academic boycott of Israel.
Would it be an effective way of responding to calls from beleaguered Palestinian academics and students for solidarity? Could it be misguided and hit the wrong people? Myself, not being an academic I don't have to make a decision, but I'm inclined to think a boycott aimed at individuals merely because of their nationality would be wrong, amounting to collective punishment which the enemy practises but we don't because we're not racists.
(It would be a different matter if someone specifically accused of crimes was coming, whatever their nationality).
A boycott targetting institutions on the other hand, as the AUT conference originally attempted, is a legitimate idea, particularly if the institutions are shown to have government links or be involved in
The anti-boycott group Engage seems unable or unwilling to see the difference, and its big man Dave Hirsh has been urging members of the new academic union UCU to demand of candidates for office where they stand on "boycotting Israeli colleagues", as though that was being raised.
Even when they say they are against it, he doesn't seem satisfied. Singling out "left" candidate for general secretary Roger Kline, Hirsh wanted to know why the SWP was supporting him, and he doesn't like Kline citing his old Communist dad as saying you can criticise Israel without being antisemitic.
Engage was supposed to be on the Left itself, or so we were expected to believe. Maybe Hirsh was still upset over setbacks in his own college, Goldsmith's, or maybe he just couldn't stop the mask slipping.
Anyway, someone who has so far had genuine doubts over the academic boycott is Yigal Arens, an Israeli-born information systems specialist working in the United States. When he recieved an invitation to take his expertise to Israel, he hesitatated. While he was considering whether to accept, those who were to have been his hosts made his mind up for him. They may also have helped tip the balance of his thinking towards the boycott in principle.
At any rate he has headed this letter to a friend, with its interesting picture of just how "independent" of government some academic institutions are,
"And *they* complain about a boycott?"
Although raised in Israel -- living there from age 6 to 23 -- for many years I have been an outspoken critic of Israeli policies including their occupation of Palestinian territories.
On January 9 I was called by a US professor who specializes in security informatics. He said that he was co-organizing a small workshop on the Internet and its growing role in terrorist and anti-terrorist activities. The goal of the workshop would be to identify key research issues and set a research agenda. The workshop would include 20-30 people from the US, Israel, the UK and other European countries and was being paid for by NATO. The other co-organizer was Dr. Bracha Shapira of Ben-Gurion
University (BGU), and the workshop would be held at BGU in early June.
The US researcher invited me to participate in this workshop. He said that the organizers were particularly interested in my presence and were very eager for me to accept the invitation. I have been involved in organizing related activities for several years now.
I told the US professor that I would have to think about this. I had a potentially conflicting obligation. Also, I said I wanted to be sure that I'd be treated no different than any other American participant, since I'd had an unpleasant past experience at another scientific meeting in Israel. He said he wasn't aware of any problem -- the Israeli organizer wanted me there. I said I'd give him an answer in a week.
On the following Tuesday, January 16, I received a urgent call from the US prof. He apologized profusely and said that he had been told by the Israelis that government personnel would be present at the workshop and that they would feel uncomfortable if I participated, and therefore he was told to rescind the invitation, which he was doing.
I wrote an email to Dr. Shapira to ask what happened to suddenly change their mind. That was on January 16. Since she didn't respond I sent her another email on January 19. She finally answered only on January 21. Her explanation was that the US co-organizer "exceeded his authority in extending the invitation without full consultation with the conference organizers."
Obviously, this doesn't answer any of the questions that come to mind given the specific interactions I had with the US co-organizer. She also uses peculiar language to describe the relationship between two
co-organizers of an academic workshop.
I understand that a couple of reporters have contacted Dr. Shapira for her reaction. She has either refused comment or repeated that the original invitation was issued without consulting her, but has not addressed the question of official Israeli involvement in the process.
Director, Digital Government Research Center
Director, Intelligent Systems Division
Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering USC/Information Sciences Institute
Further reading on Yigal Arens: