Academics meet to settle boycott dispute

From the archive (legacy material)

Polly Curtis | The Guardian | 26 February 2003

A distinguished pro-Israeli Jewish academic will tonight come face to face with the author of an academic boycott of Israel in an attempt to settle a bitterly contested issue that has divided academia.
Professor Geoffrey Alderman, vice-president of academic affairs at the American InterContinental University in London, and a robust critic of the boycott, will meet Professor Hilary Rose, a visiting research professor at City University London, and one of the main architects of the original call for sanctions, in a debate chaired by the Campaign for Academic Freedoms and Standards (Cafas).
Although the two academics have differing views, both are patrons of Cafas, and Professor Alderman is a former chairman of the London branch of the Association of University Teachers, which is hosting the debate in Swansea, and which has endorsed Professor Rose’s call for a moratorium of working with Israeli institutions on European-funded projects.
Mike Cohen, the Swansea academic organising tonight’s debate, described it as “extremely controversial”. He said the AUT’s decision to host the event was in response to a letter sent to university vice-chancellors by a Jewish campaigning group, the Board of Deputies, appealing for academics not to take part in the boycott.
Mr Cohen said the letter “endangered people’s rights to participate in the boycott”. “There was clearly an important discussion to be had, so we decided that the best thing to do would be to sponsor a debate on this.”
Speaking ahead of tonight’s event, Professor Alderman told he believed the basic principles of academic life was dialogue. “I can only envisage in the most extraordinary circumstances where I would believe it is justified to sever all ties,” he said.
Formerly head of quality assurance at Middlesex University, Professor Alderman said he had personally boycotted Lincoln and Humberside University in 1998 after the quality assurance agency reported it had agreed to work with a university in the United Arab Emirates where books by Jewish authors were banned. “I don’t recall AUT or Natfhe boycotting this university for a terrible thing,” he said. “My own private boycott was not because I am Jewish, but because that action offends my basic academic principles.”
Professor Alderman has also endorsed the little-known “principle of universality” set out by the International Council of Science, which maintains that science and politics should remain separate.
Professor Rose sparked controversy last year when her letter calling for a boycott was published in the Guardian.
She said today that she would use the debate to defend her original boycott, which called for the use of EU funding to put pressure on Israel to improve its human rights record.
“It’s very curious that we have one Middle East country that is a member of the EU research group. Europe is a new international organisation. It has an impressive record for compelling member countries to improve their human rights,” she said.
She argued that her original call to pressure Israel on human rights issues had been hijacked by an American Zionist movement. “Their position I find intellectually quite deplorable. We’ve got people who are not able to hold an intellectually rigorous position, which is often more about protecting Israeli scientists’ interests than protecting the safety of the Palestinian people who can’t even go to school,” she said.
Much of the debate surrounding the academic boycott of Israel has focused on how it should be applied. Last year, Mona Baker, a linguist at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, caused a furore when she sacked two Israeli academics from a translation studies journal she owned and edited after signing up to the boycott.