May 30, 2007 8:30 AM
Two years ago a special conference of the Association of University Teachers rejected by a large majority an attempt to impose a boycott on universities in Israel. Now that the AUT has merged into the University and College Union the boycotters are back, with a motion at today's UCU Congress entitled "Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions". Their motion discriminates unjustly against Israeli academics. It also undermines the principle of academic universality, which is important to scholars and scientists everywhere.
The best-known statement of the principle of universality is found in the Statutes of the International Council for Science (ICSU), the authoritative international voice of science. ICSU's Statute 5 forbids discrimination among scientists "on the basis of such factors as ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, language, political stance, gender or age." In other words, scientists should not suffer discrimination because of features that are irrelevant to their own practice of science. Country of residence is obviously one such feature. No wonder that ICSU issued a strongly-worded condemnation in August 2002 of an earlier attempt to boycott Israeli academics.
There are several reasons why scientists do not tolerate discrimination on the basis of irrelevant factors. First, since the advance of science depends crucially on scientists being able to communicate freely with colleagues, it is self-defeating to exclude a whole national group from the scientific enterprise. Secondly, the fact that scientists can cooperate in a way that transcends the dangerous divisions of humankind gives an important impetus to the breakdown of such divisions. In any case, to punish people - for that is what a boycott amounts to - for actions for which they are not responsible is repugnant: it amounts to treating them in the same way as a hijacker treats his hostages.
The principle of Universality does not apply only to science. The advances that our generation and its predecessors have made in our treatment of convicts or prisoners of war, in our distaste for extreme inequalities of wealth, in our abhorrence of discrimination on grounds of sex, race or sexual orientation - all these have been promoted by the work of scholars in the humanities and the social sciences. Academics in these fields, like those in science, progress by exchanging ideas with colleagues regardless of where they live.
Although the arguments for upholding the principle of Universality are extremely powerful, one can imagine an extreme emergency in which it would have to give way. Suppose the world were threatened with the prospect of a nuclear war launched by a rogue state, and a boycott of the nuclear physicists of that state could avert the catastrophe. In those circumstances a boycott would be not just acceptable but essential. But such cases would be exceptionally rare. The principle of the Universality of Science was formally enunciated 75 years ago (it had existed as an unwritten convention long before that), and it has survived the rise and fall of Hitler, the beginning and end of the Cold War, and (to cite a few examples at random) the atrocities of Rwanda, Cambodia, the Balkans and Darfur.
Those who propose this academic boycott should be obliged to explain why their case is so exceptional as to make it worth jettisoning all the advantages that derive from the principle of Universality. They should also be obliged to explain why their arguments apply uniquely to Israel and not (for example) to China, given the repression of Tibet, or to Russia, given the war against the Chechens. After all, arguments based on moral principles require similar cases to be treated equally, in a non-discriminatory way.
The boycott motion at the UCU makes a feeble gesture towards such an explanation by alleging "complicity" of Israeli academia in the occupation of the West Bank. In fact there is widespread opposition to the occupation amongst Israeli academics. Have a look (via Google) at the work of Neve Gordon, Lev Grinberg, Menachem Klein, Adi Ophir, Ilan Pappe, Yoav Peled, Dan Rabinowitz, Uri Ram, Yehouda Shenhav or Oren Yiftachel. Academics are prominent in all the major anti-occupation organisations. At last count 358 members of the faculties of Israeli universities had signed a petition on-line stating: "We wish to express our appreciation and support for those of our students and lecturers who refuse to serve as soldiers in the occupied territories."
We invite the boycotters to produce similar lists of Russian and Chinese academics who publicly oppose the policies of their governments towards their own occupied territories and who have kept their jobs (and their liberty). Alternatively, we invite them to admit that their motion is based on a specific, discriminatory dislike - or worse - of Israel, and that, if implemented, the boycott would be a collective punishment of all those who commit the "offence" of working in Israeli universities.