Academic shock and awe

From the archive (legacy material)

Sharif Elmusa | Al-Ahram Weekly | 27 September 2007

The Israeli lobby has enlisted US university presidents to its cause with no debate on US university campuses, writes Sharif Elmusa*
The Israeli emperor now wears only the clothes of apartheid. Many people are noticing and are speaking up. Some have taken steps to boycott this, perhaps the last, apartheid state. The wave includes a wide range of participants, from academic and labour unions to writers, artists, church and student groups and others. Together they speak of boycott, divestment and sanctions. Some of those in the forefront of the campaign are Jewish, including the art critic Peter Berger, Steven Rose at the Open University, and Israeli historian Ilan Pappe. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who labelled the Israeli system as worse than his country’s former apartheid regime, endorsed divestment. What drew the ire of Israel and the Israel lobby the most, however, is a resolution by the British University and College Union (UCU) at its congress 30 May. The UCU resolution encourages its members to “consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israel academic institutions,” and to forge closer relations with Palestinian universities.
The Israel lobby has reacted to the UCU’s move in Britain with an academic “shock and awe” operation. What I am referring to is the one-page advertisement in The New York Times 8 August, paid for by the American Jewish Committee (AJC). The AJC assembled for the ad the signatures of more than 300 American college and university presidents endorsing a statement by Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, that pronounces an identity of interests between US and Israeli universities: “for we do not intend to draw distinctions between our mission and that of the universities you [the UCU] are seeking to punish.” It then menacingly takes the logical step: “Add Columbia to the boycott list.” This way the battle is shifted to the enemy’s turf: if you boycott Israeli universities, we will boycott you — a British eye (and a Palestinian one as collateral damage) for an Israeli eye.
The ad places Bollinger’s statement inside a frame at the centre of the page, flanked by presidential names on all sides. The design, together with the first person form Bollinger uses in the statement, intensify the power of the message and give it a sense of urgency. The text is short, terse and declarative. It does not indicate the reasons that led the UCU to pass the resolution after a long and open exchange, making those who backed it sound like extremist airheads. Contestation is the lifeblood of democracy and intellectual advancement, but the big guns do not seem to feel they owe anyone a rational counter-argument. Worse, they do not mention the Palestinians at all; unlike the UCU that frames its resolution in the light of “Israel’s 40-year occupation [which] has seriously damaged the fabric of Palestinian society,” the “denial of educational rights for Palestinians,” and “the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation.” So while the ad is visually framed, it deliberately and callously lacks context. And while it evokes high-minded principles, it takes, behind the reader’s back, the side of the powerful against the wronged. Who then deserves to be called “shoddy intellectually and politically biased,” the UCU, as Bollinger alleges, or he and his colleagues?
The UCU debated the motion over a period of two years. Its resolution in fact was a call for further debate on the boycott, a key point omitted by Bollinger. The union tackled questions like: Why single out Israel when there are so many other bad states in the world? What is the role of Israeli academics in their state’s practices? Does a boycott impinge on the human rights of those subject to the boycott? In contrast, the 300 academic CEOs, like autocratic rulers, have circumvented discussion of the issue on their campuses. That the Israel lobby felt it must respond with such force and without deliberation, in fact, belies moral weakness instead of strength. Like any totalitarian system, the lobby fears that any cracks engendered by free conversation would lead to the crumbling of the edifice of falsehoods it has constructed about Israel and the Palestinians. Rigid structures collapse suddenly.
At stake for the academy is not just the question of the boycott; it is also matter of who has “voice”. Organised British educators are saying that they, too, not just the heads of their institutions, can take initiative in shaping relations with others. They, not the heads, after all are the teachers, trainers, researchers and collaborators. Will members of faculty and students at American universities — even those opposed to the boycott — demand that the issue be tabled for deliberation and that all concerned get a chance to freely express their opinion? Or will they accept the decree of their presidents in silence?
British academics that objected to the resolution felt at least obligated to express, in a message to the UCU, their sympathy with the Palestinian plight and the chronic stranglehold Israel has over their educational development. It is doubtful that many of the signatories of the US ad are even aware of this dark side of Israel’s conduct. How much does, for example, Susan Hockfield, president of MIT, my alma mater, and a neuroscientist, know about the issue? Shouldn’t she have consulted, before signing such an important policy position, members of her own faculty, among them Noam Chomsky? Had she talked to him or other region scholars she would have learned a great deal about Israel’s systematic dispossession of the Palestinians; about the numerous and extended closures of Palestinian universities; about the thousands of students who were imprisoned and banished into exile; about the ban in the last couple of years against academics with dual nationalities from entering into the West Bank and Gaza to resume teaching. She could have been informed of this, and much more. Fortunately, it is not too late for Hockfield to educate herself. She can venture into the West Bank and Gaza and discover the truth first hand. If pressed for time, she can visit websites such as those of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel ( ) and the UCU ( ).
Still, lack of knowledge alone does not sufficiently explain the mobilisation of 300 academic presidents. Bollinger himself must understand something about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He handled several fabricated charges by pro-Israeli media and activists against Palestinian and other Arab professors at Columbia, including the late Edward Said, Joseph Massad and George Saliba. We can only conclude, especially since the cost of the ad was defrayed by the AJC, that Bollinger and at least some of his colleagues fell under the influence of the Israeli lobby. In The London Review of Books, Spring 2007, Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt — who have written a book on the lobby due for release this month — cite the testimony of several highly knowledgeable Washingtonians on the lobby’s reach. One of them, former Senator Ernest Hollings, said on leaving office that “you can’t have an Israeli policy other than what AIPAC (the American Israel Political Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby group in Washington) gives you around here.” Could the 300 presidents forge no other policy on the UCU’s resolution other than what American Jewish lobbyists dictate to them?
Their stance carries a moral burden. By siding with power, and by trying to abort the boycott effort, they abet in depriving the Palestinians of the only viable non- violent course of resistance to the Israeli occupation of their land. The international boycott of white South Africa’s apartheid system eventually led to the collapse of that system. Equally salient, but often forgotten, is that the boycott strengthened the hand of Nelson Mandela and others in the African National Congress who advocated peaceful means for achieving majority rule. Otherwise, there would have been much more bloodshed, and perhaps no reconciliation between blacks and whites. The US government was one of the very last to join the boycott against South Africa, after a prolonged pursuit of hypocritical “constructive engagement”. (Israel never joined and maintained its strong historic links with apartheid South Africa.) When the boycott took hold, however, American academics and others were rightly proud to take part and to engage in civil disobedience in front of South Africa’s diplomatic missions and offices. What is the difference between South Africa and Israel? The Israel lobby? Perhaps. But in the end, Bollinger and his peers must accept responsibility for their unilateral, politically biased attempt to pre-empt debate. The start of the new academic year is a good time for concerned faculty and students to demand a voice.
* The writer is an associate professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.