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Academic Shock and Awe

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    The Israeli lobby has enlisted US university presidents to its cause with no debate on US university campuses, writes Sharif Elmusa* Academic shock and awe
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 3, 2008
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      The Israeli lobby has enlisted US university presidents to its cause
      with no debate on US university campuses, writes Sharif Elmusa*

      Academic shock and awe
      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

      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.=20

      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

      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 (
      www.pacbi.org ) and the UCU ( www.ucu.org.uk ).

      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.



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