Academic Challenges

Last Saturday, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, z”l, passed away at the age of 85. Sharon was one of Israel’s most daring and celebrated generals; he was also a man who was able to take bold steps in the hopes of achieving peace, including the disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

Following the evacuation of the settlements in Gaza and four others in the West Bank, Prime Minister Sharon addressed the United Nations General Assembly and said, “I, as someone whose path of life led him to be a fighter and commander in all of Israel’s wars, reach out today to our Palestinian neighbors in a call for reconciliation and compromise to end the bloody conflict, and embark on the path that leads to peace and understanding between our peoples. I view this as my calling and my primary mission in the coming years.” Unfortunately, just several weeks later he suffered a massive stroke.

I had three occasions to be with Prime Minister Sharon, including a small group gathering at his Sycamore Ranch in the Negev. He was charming, very warm, and extremely funny. His persona was not like what I imagined – in public, his presence was that of a General, always in command. Yet, on that evening, he was the person you could “pal around with.”

Prime Minister Sharon believed his duty was to protect his country and its people. As U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said at his funeral, “Arik (as he was called) engendered strong opinions. But like all historic leaders, he had a North Star that guided him. His North Star was the survival of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”

May his memory be for a blessing and his family comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

On December 15, in a move condemned by numerous prominent academic scholars and, now, over 200 universities and colleges throughout North America, the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to adopt a resolution supporting an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions following a recommendation by their National Council. The vote, however, represented just a narrow fraction of overall ASA members with only 25% of its membership taking part.

This issue has gained national attention, yet much of the coverage has been to cast the spotlight on the clear violation of academic freedom. Numerous organizations, schools (including Willamette University), and academic groups have come forward to reject it on the grounds that academic boycotts undermine the fundamental principle of academic freedom. The Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s Community Relations Committee, Oregon Hillel and Greater Portland Hillel worked behind-the-scenes to get two local presidents to issue public statements.

University of Oregon President Michael Gottfredson:

The University of Oregon is committed to the pursuit of knowledge, freedom of inquiry, and exchange of ideas as core principles of our mission as a leading public research university. Academic freedom is the cornerstone of our research, teaching, and service to society. An academic boycott violates this fundamental principle. While we support the right of individuals to express and advocate for their own views, we oppose any organizational effort that undermines the ability of members of our academic community to collaborate in support of research, teaching, and scholarship. We join the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) and Association of American Universities (AAU) in strongly opposing a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and organizations.

Portland State University President Wim Wiewel:

As the president of Portland State University, I join with many colleagues (as I already did through the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities) in condemning the call of the American Studies Association for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.  As academics, we are committed to the free and open exchange of ideas and knowledge. Thus, in principle, organizational attempts to stifle such exchange are antithetical to our beliefs.  Even if a nation's politics or policies were abhorrent, it would be extremely rare for an academic boycott to be appropriate or useful.  In the case of Israel, while reasonable people can certainly debate the merits of any number of specific policies and programs, the totality of the practices and beliefs of the country does not even come close to meriting a boycott.  Indeed, the ASA action has encouraged me to strengthen my pursuit of academic exchanges between Portland State University and Israeli institutions. 

We are grateful to our university leaders and others throughout the country who have come forward and publicly and forcefully denounced any boycott.

Unfortunately, the academic challenges did not end there. The Modern Language Association’s (MLA) Delegate Assembly met earlier this week, and after a contentious debate, declined to condemn the American Studies Association suggested academic boycott of Israel universities by a narrow vote of 60-53.

The MLA, however, did advance a resolution criticizing Israel for “denials of entry to the West Bank by U.S. academics” traveling to Palestinian universities, which will now be considered by the MLA Executive Council.  This resolution is based on false information and misrepresented facts.

“I found it shocking that members I spoke with told me that despite agreeing we proved our case that the resolution was factually incorrect, they still voted for it out of a single-minded opposition to the State of Israel,” said Professor Cary Nelson of the University of Illinois, immediate past president of the American Association of University Professors and current MLA member. “This is an unfortunate instance where politics were allowed to trump scholarship and undermines the credibility of the MLA.”

A broad cross-section of the American academic community has condemned attempts to single-out Israel and have rejected the notion of academic boycotts as inconsistent with academic principles. This includes the American Council on Education (an umbrella of 1,800 institutions), the Executive Committee of the Association of American Universities (represents 62 top institutions in the United States and Canada), the American Association of University Professors (more than 48,000 members), and the over 200 and growing list of universities and colleges that condemned the recent ASA decision to institute a boycott on Israeli academic institutions.

We must urge scholars to reject these types of misguided resolutions that peddle falsehoods inconsistent with academic principles, and instead contribute to efforts that encourage collaboration and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians in a wide range of fields. This may help Ariel Sharon’s U.N. comments come to fruition as we embark on the path that leads to peace and understanding between our peoples.

Shabbat shalom.



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