Academic freedom under seige (National Post June 20,2007)

Academic freedom under seige

Barbara Kay, National Post
Published: Wednesday, June 20, 2007

In the annals of dubious achievements a "first" by academics in a democratic country: On May 30, British academics representing the Union of Colleges and Universities (UCU) voted in favour (158-99, 17 abstentions) of boycotting their professional (Israeli) peers.

Capping a five-year campaign by a gang of fanatically anti-Israel supporters of the Palestinian cause, the boycott's advocates present as protesters of Israel's unfair treatment of Palestinians and failure to abide by United Nations resolutions. These are canards. For the motion's resolutions include circulation of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) statement, which justifies the boycott not on the grounds of Israeli policies, but because of its "Zionist ideology." In short, it isn't colonialism the boycottists oppose, but Israel's very existence.

While the campaign bellwethers are fringe radicals and deluded professional outliers, they are not harmless, and must be publicly, and repeatedly, denounced by the mainstream. History teaches that group scapegoating always begins with control of the knowledge flow, and here is a perfect example of the phenomenon.

The movement began in Britain in 2002 with a call by two academic ciphers for a boycott that was quickly scolded into apparent submission. But, as with a cancer, rapidly proliferating cells soon bloomed at home and metastasized in other countries, notably France and Australia. Like all cancers, it will not simply 'peter out' without opposition. The boycott campaign must be recognized and aggressively exposed as the malignant totalitarian impulse it is, a stain on the principle of free global intellectual exchange underlying all our institutions of higher learning.

For this is not just a British university problem, any more than the 1923 assault on Jewish students and their right to learn at Vienna University was an Austrian problem. Politically correct academics may think, as one wag put, that one can "pick up a turd by the clean end" in insisting rabid anti-Zionism isn't anti-Semitism, but at this late stage of their obvious convergence in the hard left, that has become a risibly shopworn shibboleth.

The British House of Lords has collectively and eloquently denounced the motion (see the inspiring whole in Hansard for June 12). Baroness Deech noted: "Before any one reacts with the frequently voiced sentiment that criticism of Israel does not equate to anti-Semitism, let me hasten to agree, but to point out that the antagonists of the Jewish students [on university campuses] are failing to make that distinction." She warns: "Academic freedom is the first target of tyrannies, and those who ignore attacks on academic pursuits are co-operating with tyranny."

In the U.S., Columbia University's president, Lee C. Bollinger, set the gold standard for moral clarity in a statement last week, declaring the boycott "utterly antithetical to the fundamental values of the academy," concluding "?if the British UCU is intent on pursuing its deeply misguided policy, then it should add Columbia to its boycott list?for we gladly stand together with our many colleagues in British, American and Israeli universities against such intellectually shoddy and politically biased attempts to hijack the central mission of higher education."

Canada? In response to my query regarding their reaction to the boycott motion, a University of Toronto spokesperson referred me to a 2002 document in which general bromides are expressed around the value of academic freedom, along with a statement that they "do not agree with the boycott action by the British academics" as it is not "an appropriate vehicle for expressing concern about a situation."

The Swiss-precision tooling of the studied non-partisanship, impersonality and lack of moral indignation in this lifeless statement suggests boycotts are a matter of opinion and logic, not morality. It does not name the "British academics" or identify the "situation" or the victims of the "vehicle." Further comment on the boycott campaign's significant escalation was firmly declined.

McGill University did not respond to my query for its response to the UCU motion.

In positive contrast to both, UBC immediately published a forceful message from president Stephen Toope on its Web site, in which he calls the attempt to stifle others' views a "shameful scheme," and "an affront to modern society, [which]must be condemned?"

While the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued an equally strongly worded statement, its parallel organization here, The Canadian Association for University Teachers (CAUT), to which all teaching academics must belong, and whose mission statement brims with paeans to academic freedom, has been lamentably silent on the boycott. A spokesman told me that while opposed to academic boycotts in general, CAUT "does not involve itself in the affairs of international sister organizations."

Again by refreshing -- and unique -- contrast, the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS) has been the only Canadian organization to protest the British campaign unequivocally and frequently from its inception, identifying the boycott motion as an act of "academic cannibalism."

For myself, until I see evidence by my alma maters, the University of Toronto and McGill University, of the ethical stand modelled by Columbia University, UBC and SAFS, my annual donation to both will be rerouted to SAFS. As Lord Mitchell noted in the June 12 Hansard: "Boycotts beget boycotts. Two can play at that game?" For goodness sake, we all can.

© National Post 2007