Right Answer, Wrong Argument: Response to the Roger Bowen: “Academic Boycotts – No!”

(Published under in Academe, "From the General Secretary", March-April 2006) http://www.aaup.org/publications/Academe/2006/06ma/06maFTGS.HTM
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As one of the invitees to the cancelled Bellagio conference on academic boycotts, I strongly endorse Roger Bowen’s headline and conclusion – academic boycotts have no place in political disputes, in general, and in the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, in particular. However, Prof. Bowen’s presentation of the events is incomplete[1], and it is important to understand the real points of disagreement. The outcome of the debate regarding the ethics of the proposed conference was not the result of a campaign by “some well-organized individuals”, as Prof. Bowen and others assert, but rather a belated realization that the program was poorly thought-out and counterproductive.

This project – including the planned publication following the cancellation of the conference — has been flawed by the glaring contradiction between the stated goals and the agendas of many participants. The intent, as stated by Prof. Bowen, was to “to discuss an AAUP policy statement …unambiguously opposed to this noxious and blunt instrument that stifles academic freedom”. However, many participants were clearly devoted to an entirely different and opposing goal. Based on this evidence, the chances were small for a wide-ranging discussion about the nature of academic freedom and academic boycotts.

From the early stages, this conference had a number of invitees who have campaigned strongly and consistently against Israel, including Hilary Rose, Omar Barghouti,Lisa Taraki, Yehudit Harel, and Ur Shlonsky. All use the language of demonization with reference to Israel, using terms such as “racist”, “apartheid”, and false accusations of “war crimes”. Omar Barghouti, who made the highly offensive comparison of Israelis to Nazis[2], also denounced dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians, declaring that such efforts “resulted in providing a figleaf covering up Israel’s relentless colonization of Palestinian land and its crimes against the Palestinian people.”[3] And in June 2002, in the midst of the Palestinian terror campaign, Shlonskymade the outrageous claim that “the human bombs in the cafes and buses assure ever broader and deeper support for a project of ethnic cleansing”, that “Israeli civil society is authorized and encouraged to use force that becomes justified as a means of self-defense.” Shlonsky declared that Israelwas preparing for a “genocidal campaign.”[4] Hilary Rose, an inveterate pro-Palestinian campaigner, and among the leaders of the 2005 boycott effort of the Association of University Teachers (UK) refers to “Israeli’s state policy of bloody repression”.[5] A simple reading of these and many other statements clearly shows that they are obsessively focused on demonizing Israel, and that their promotion of academic boycotts is one of many means chosen to achieve this end.

Although others with different agendas and positions were eventually invited (including myself), it was clear that the discussion could well turn into another political diatribe against Israel’s right to exist. Many of the leaders of the boycott campaign included in the program make no distinction between legitimate criticism of particular Israeli policies and wholesale demonization. The frequent use of terms like “war crimes”, “racist” and “apartheid” in reference to Israel, in which the context of Arab terror, wars, and rejectionism are absent, provide examples. In contrast, there were only 2 or 3 participants opposed to boycotts with specialized knowledge of the Israeli case, and able to debate this issue in detail. Yet another unbalanced and emotional exchange on the Arab-Israeli conflict would not have particularly useful, and was entirely inconsistent with the proclaimed objectives.

In the media and the publicity that ensued, including statements from organizations fulfilling their mandates in an accountable manner (no conspiracy), the focus shifted to the question of whether the conference would be the academic exercise advertised or a venue for demonization, along the lines of the 2001 Durbanconference. These discrepancies and their implications certainly became clear to the three funding organizations. They called for postponement, based on substantive grounds and reasoned argument, particularly after the conference reading package included an article from a Holocaust denial publication. According to Professor Cary Nelson, the AAUP’s elected leadership shared the same concerns about the format, which they felt contradicted both the original intention behind the conference and the AAUP’s deeply held position supporting academic freedom more generally.[6] As the funders and understood this core incongruity, they also recognized that the objectives of the project could not be achieved.

In response, a group of the pro-boycott conference invitees published a statement that delegitimizes critics of the conference as a nefarious lobby[7], demonstrating their preference for libeling opponents rather than engaging with the issues. Blaming the cancellation on “a carefully orchestrated campaign” by “lobbies” falsely invokes the canard of Jewish conspiracies. (Joan Scott, one of the editors of a planned volume of Academe designed to replace the cancelled conference, and a prominent anti-Israel campaigner, has used similar language.[8] ) Furthermore, the assertion that there is something wrong with organizations and academics (whether Jewish or non-Jewish) raising legitimate concerns reveals a deeply troubling prejudice — one that is apparent throughout the boycott campaign. Clearly the decision to postpone and reconsider the conference resulted from a variety of reasons, including particularly the sharp deviation from the AAUP’s declared objectives.

There are important discussions to be held about academic freedom throughout the Middle East; about academic freedom and boycotts, in general; and about what we can do to support or help scholars suffering from repression in other countries. Unfortunately, I had no reason to believe that this conference would have advanced any of these discussions in a useful manner. While I congratulate Prof. Bowen for his untiring efforts to defend academic freedom, in this particular case, previous experience clearly indicated that the means that were chosen would not have promoted these noble ends.

Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg
Executive Committee, IAB and

Director, Program on Conflict Management


You may also view the above article at: http://www.biu.ac.il/rector/academic_freedom/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/Response%20to%20Bowen%20in%20Academe%20-%20Right%20Anwer%20Wrong%20Argument%20(1).doc

[1] http://www.aaup.org/publications/Academe/2006/06ma/06maFTGS.HTM

[2] http://www.zmag.org/content/print_article.cfm?itemID=6752&sectionID=107, http://www.counterpunch.org/barghouti12222004.html

[3] http://www.opendemocracy.net/conflict-debate_97/morality_2853.jsp

[4] http://www.solidarity-us.org/atc/100shlonsky.html

[5] http://www.monabaker.com/hilaryrose.htm, http://www.monabaker.com/pMachine/more.php?id=A2846_0_1_0_M

[6] http://insidehighered.com/news/2006/02/09/aaup

[7] http://www.petitiononline.com/AAUP001/petition.html

[8] http://www.ameu.org/page.asp?iid=265&aid=575&pg=1

Right Answer, Wrong Argument: Response to the Roger Bowen: “Academic Boycotts – No!”

(Published under in Academe, "From the General Secretary", March-April 2006) http://www.aaup.org/publications/Academe/2006/06ma/06maFTGS.HTM
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Gerald M. Steinberg

Prof. Gerald Steinberg is president of NGO Monitor and professor of Political Studies at Bar Ilan University, where he founded the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation. His research interests include international relations, Middle East diplomacy and security, the politics of human rights and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Israeli politics and arms control.

NGO Monitor was founded following the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban South Africa, where powerful NGOs, claiming to promote human rights, hijacked the principles of morality and international law.  NGO Monitor provides information and analysis, promotes accountability, and supports discussion on the reports and activities of NGOs claiming to advance human rights and humanitarian agendas.

In 2013, Professor Steinberg accepted the prestigious Menachem Begin Prize on behalf of NGO Monitor, recognizing its “Efforts exposing the political agenda and ideological basis of humanitarian organizations that use the Discourse of human rights to discredit Israel and to undermine its position among the nations of the world.”

Steinberg is a member of Israel Council of Foreign Affairs; the Israel Higher-Education Council, Committee on Public Policy; advisory board of the Israel Law Review International, the research working group of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), and participates in the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism (ICCA). He also speaks at a variety of high-level government sessions and academic conferences worldwide.

Publications include “NGOs, Human Rights, and Political Warfare in the Arab-Israel Conflict" (Israel Studies); "The UN, the ICJ and the Separation Barrier: War by Other Means" (Israel Law Review); and Best Practices for Human Rights and Humanitarian NGO Fact-Finding (co-author), Nijhoff, Leiden, 2012.

His op-ed columns have been published in Wall St. Journal (Europe), Financial Times, Ha’aretz,International Herald Tribune, Jerusalem Post, and other publications. He has appeared as a commentator on the BBC, CBC, CNN, and NPR.

Read all stories by Gerald M. Steinberg