Growing Threats to Academic Freedom

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Hawking’s behavior is based on inaccurate, biased information. If he has insightful thoughts about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issues, let him come and share them. Stating them at the conference is the way for them to have impact.

Two recent developments within the academic community have signaled a serious, new level of escalation of hostility towards academic freedom and integrity: the recent announcement of Stephen Hawking to withdraw from presenting a keynote address at a gathering of leading world figures in Israel and the resolution by the Association of Asian American Studies to boycott Israeli academics. Unfortunately, this highlights, in both instances, scholars swayed more by propaganda than facts, and growing attempts to stifle academic freedom of enquiry.

Recently, in a series of conflicting reports, it turns out that Stephen Hawking, after an invitation to deliver a keynote address at a conference in Israel, backed out at the last minute after yielding to pressure from the British Committee For The Universities of Palestine (BRICUP), a longstanding group outspokenly not “for the universities of Palestine”, but resolutely against the universities in Israel. This group has been advocating boycotting Israeli academics and universities in Britain since 2004. After what appears to be a significant targeting of the 71-year old Hawking, he caved in and sent a letter to Israeli President Shimon Peres, stating that he was withdrawing his participation in the “Facing the Future” conference, “based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott.” A statement issued by the University of Cambridge clarified the confusion of conflicting reports as to whether his pull-out was based on poor health or anti-Israeli sentiments.

Several weeks ago, in what can only be described as a departure from its academic mission of scholarly purposes — and from academic integrity as well — the Association for Asian American Studies passed a resolutionto: “honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions; and to support the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.”

Among the reasons they cite are: 1) they are an organization which is “dedicated to the preservation and support of academic freedom and of the right to education for students and scholars in the U.S. and globally”; 2) the AAAS “seeks to advance a critique of U.S. empire, opposing US military occupation in the Arab world and U.S. support for occupation and racist practices by the Israeli state” and 3) AAAS “supports research and open discussion about these issues without censorship, intimidation, or harassment, and seeks to promote academic exchange, collaboration and opportunities for students and scholars everywhere….”

In calling for boycotting some to promote opportunity for all, the document is antithetical to the moral and ethical principles of academic freedom, as well as inconsistent. It is visibly driven by radicalized extremist propaganda and by a complete disregard for understanding either the actual history of the region or that such boycotts have been denounced as a matter of academic protocol for many years by outstanding scholars of all disciplines, including many Nobel Laureates. The AAAS has put itself in the unenviable position of sinking to an unprofessional level by succumbing to propaganda and polemics rather than moving the narrative towards constructive resolutions that might further the cause of peace. It is simply lazy academics, in which searching for the truth is displaced by sloganeering that tries to create the perception of fact.

This growing assault on academic freedom and integrity will require that university scholars of honesty and senior status forcefully speak out against these counterproductive resolutions and the scholars who support them, and publicly renounce them. As a matter of policy, morality and ethics, these resolutions, when presented, ought to be investigated for accuracy and, if necessary, opposed.

As peer review is the currency of the academic world — only peers in the academy can sway the discussions and actions of their colleagues – counterarguments need to be based on universal academic principles that guide the academic profession, not on the politics of the moment. Academics earn the right to academic freedom becauseof universal principals adopted by the profession, not from a small, but loud and boisterous group of extremist academics with axes to grind. Thorough scholarship deserves to be adopted; slipshod scholarship, polemics and propaganda deserve to be identified and deconstructed.

Hawking’s response needs to be countered on academic principles: it is based on inaccurate, biased information; serves no useful purpose in the cause of peace and diminishes the marketplace of ideas that the conference provides. If Hawking has insightful thoughts about resolving the Palestinian-Israeli issues, let him come and share them rather than succumb to the pressures to boycott intellectual exchange. If he has insights about the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, stating them at the conference is the way for them to have impact.

The AAAS resolution simply runs counter to the academic precepts AAAS proclaims it embraces. How can its proponents endorse a boycott of one set of academics when they unequivocally state that they are for the rights of ALL students and academics to research, study and be educated. This is precisely the flaw in the academic boycott tactic: it defeats the academic precepts that underlie the entire academic world.

Although many might face opposition for demanding the truth, statements issued by the American Association of University Professors and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East re-affirm that commitment to the facts, truth and freedom of academic inquiry, and to denouncing those who engage in academic boycotts. Academic boycotts serve no constructive academic purpose and usually end up engaging in discrimination based on national origin — antithetical to the precepts of human rights and principles of civil rights law.

Finally, it is time that all academics of integrity strive to create statements and campaigns that encourage academic freedom and cooperation — especially among peoples who have historically been in conflict — to develop new opportunities for peace and abundance in our increasingly interconnected world.

Growing Threats to Academic Freedom

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Edward S. Beck

Co-Founder and President Emeritus, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East

Contributing Faculty Member, Walden University

Read all stories by Edward S. Beck