The Knights of Academic Freedom

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Tuvia Blumenthal is retired from Ben Gurion University and is a member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East

The academy too has to defend itself against those who try to use academic freedom for their purpose, which is hurting this freedom: on hypocrisy in academia.

A few months ago the Association of University Teachers (AUT) in England reversed its previous decision to boycott the University of Haifa (because of an alleged persecution of one of its lecturers, Dr. Ilan Pappe), and Bar-Ilan University (because of its alleged academic support of Ariel College in the territories). The decision to boycott two Israeli universities caused a storm in the academic community, and many individuals and organizations criticized it vehemently, resulting in its cancellation. Among these organizations was the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) that criticized the initial decision as being contrary to the principle of academic freedom.

Recently the AAUP planed to convene a conference in Bellagio, on the shores of Lake Como, in Italy, on the subject of academic boycotts. Very quickly it became clear that the list of participants includes a large number of those who, only a few months before, had supported the academic boycott by the AUT. It was not difficult to predict that they will use this conference as a platform for diatribes against Israel and its policy concerning the Palestinians in the territories.

As a result of pressure exerted by Jewish organizations and faculty members of universities in Israel and abroad the AAUP, as well as organizations who pledged to finance the event (the Rockefeller, Ford and Nathan Cummings foundations), decided to postpone the conference without giving a date when it will take place. This caused uproar among the “Knights of Academic Freedom” who claimed that political pressure caused the postponement of the conference, and are now distributing a petition demanding to hold the conference according to its original plan.

This incident can serve as a trigger for a debate on academic freedom and its borders. In my opinion, there was an attempt to use academic freedom in order to hurt this freedom. It is inconceivable that lecturers who strike a crucial blow to academic freedom by boycotting universities and faculty, and who turn every academic event into a platform for propagating their political agenda, will be permitted to hide under the slogan of academic freedom and use academic conference for these purposes.

Like democracy, which has to defend itself against those who try to hurt it by using democratic institutions, the academy too has to defend itself against those who use academic freedom for their goal, which is to hurt this freedom. The AAUP and the foundations did the right thing when they decided to postpone the conference, and will do well to take these considerations into account if and when they plan to reconvene it.

The Knights of Academic Freedom

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Tuvia Blumenthal

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