Saturday, January 4, 2014

NEIU's president against the boycott

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TO: University Community

FROM: Sharon Hahs, President

DATE: January 3, 2014

RE: Opposition to Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

Northeastern Illinois University upholds the principle and practice of academic freedom, and, therefore, opposes boycotts of academic institutions or scholars in any region of the world. We strongly endorse the Association of American Universities’ (AAU) statement opposing a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The AAU statement, issued on December 20, 2013, and signed by the organization’s executive committee, says that:

“Any such boycott of academic institutions directly violates academic freedom, which is a fundamental principle of AAU universities and of American higher education in general. Academic freedom is the freedom of university faculty responsibly to produce and disseminate knowledge through research, teaching, and service, without undue constraint. It is a principle that should not be abridged by political considerations. American colleges and universities, as well as like institutions elsewhere, must stand as the first line of defense against attacks on academic freedom.”

We join higher education institutions nationally in support of this statement.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

An academic scandal headed for Chicago

Academicians from all over the world will gather in Chicago for the 129th annual convention of the 30,000-member Modern Language Association. The MLA, according to its website, provides opportunities for teachers of English and foreign languages "to share their scholarly findings and teaching experiences with colleagues and to discuss trends in the academy."

The four-day convention, starting Jan. 9, features exhibitions, opportunities for job interviews — and 810 sessions, all but one of which will address topics connected to the study of language and literature. The one exception is entitled "Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine." "This roundtable," the MLA website explains, "addresses the political movement Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, seen by its defenders as a viable means to end the Palestinian occupation."

That the only political session at the MLA targets Israel must appear strange to the unbiased observer. Anyone familiar with the Middle East will wonder what is meant by ending "the Palestinian occupation." Does it refer to Israel's presence on the West Bank? Israel took control of that area in 1967 in the course of defending itself against an invasion from the army of Jordan, the country which then ruled the West Bank territory. For decades Israel has pursued a series of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority — just as it did, successfully, with Egypt and Jordan — in hopes of reaching a peace deal to end any Israeli presence on the West Bank. The latest phase of those Israeli-Palestinian talks, under U.S. sponsorship, is ongoing even as the MLA prepares to gather in Chicago.

Or, perhaps, by "occupation" the conveners of this MLA session mean the very existence of Israel itself, which, according to some diehard opponents of the Jewish state has no international legitimacy, even though the United Nations mandated Israel's creation and admitted Israel to U.N. membership. If that's the case, this roundtable of academics is simply seeking to dismantle a U.N. member state.
One would think that an organization dedicated to languages and literature would value Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, where academic freedom is alive and well, a free press flourishes, and there is no discrimination based on race, religion, sex or sexual preference. If the MLA wants to pronounce on international politics, why are there no sessions on countering repressive regimes such as those in Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe or North Korea, where people, for example, suffer imprisonment or worse for expressing politically incorrect ideas or adhering to the wrong faith?

Even worse, this MLA boycott "conversation" doesn't even pretend to examine both sides of the question. All of the announced speakers are on record favoring an Israeli boycott. In fact, presiding officer Samer M. Ali informed The Chronicle of Higher Education that Israel's guilt is not open to doubt but rather, "(t)he question that panelists will be debating is not whether Israel is violating the rights of Palestinians, but what to do about it."

This academic scandal headed for Chicago will not be an isolated incident, but simply the latest phase in an effort by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel to get American scholarly bodies' help in delegitimizing the Jewish state. The Association for Asian Studies, the American Studies Association and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association — all relatively small —have endorsed academic boycotts of Israel, and the "conversation" at the MLA convention is designed as the opening wedge to pry an endorsement from a larger and mainstream body.

What happened to the concept that academic organizations were designed to facilitate communication between both educators within a single country and educators in different countries, rather than to build walls between groups of educators in pursuit of one or more perceived political goals?

Thankfully, the boycott movement is opposed by all the responsible voices in the academy who have spoken. The American Association of Universities and the American Association of University Professors, as well as numerous individual scholars, have condemned it as a violation of academic freedom. Most of our prestigious local academic institutions, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, have voiced their rejection of these academic boycotts. But the battle is far from over.
An alert to fair-minded scholars in every academic field: Don't let your profession become a haven for Israel-bashers.

Amy Stoken is director of the Chicago Regional Office of the American Jewish Committee. Jack S. Levin is a past president of AJC Chicago and a part-time lecturer at the University of Chicago and Harvard University law schools.