Friday, November 30, 2007

Boycotting Israeli academics is "an important tool in the defense of academic freedom"

"Ryerson debates boycott of Israeli academics:

"Ryerson prof calls academic boycott "an important tool in the defense of academic freedom"


Those filling an auditorium at Ryerson University Wednesday evening were expecting what was advertised as a community forum on boycotts and academic freedom. What they got, instead, were two separate communities discussing their viewpoints without any intention of compromising or changing their ideas. The number of open-minded participants in the room could have been counted on one hand.

The forum was called in response to Ryerson president Sheldon Levy’s statement this summer condemning the British University and College Union’s boycott of Israeli academics and universities. “We will not stand by as the very nature of university education is being undermined,” Levy said.

Presidents at the University of British Columbia, McGill University, and York University also posted statements on their websites denouncing the boycott. "Protection of academic freedoms, and that includes the freedom to collaborate with academic partners anywhere in the world on important issues, is absolutely fundamental to the mission of a university," McGill University principal Heather Munroe-Blum said. "This proposed boycott needs to be denounced widely."

The boycott has also been rejected by a number of high profile American institutions. Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger said, “We will not hold intellectual exchange hostage to the political disagreements of the moment.” He went on to challenge the British union to include Columbia on their boycott list because the university “does not intend to draw distinctions between [its] mission and that of the universities [the union] is seeking to punish.”

Despite wide agreement on the issue, the Ryerson community was split on the position the university should take. The use of “we” in Levy’s statement angered pro-Palestinian groups on campus. They felt Levy (even though he is the president of the university) had no place speaking on behalf of Ryerson on the matter.

“He ends [the statement] by speaking on behalf of an indeterminate we, on behalf of the university which includes many students who may feel that president Levy does not and cannot speak for them,” professor Stuart Murray, said during the forum.

But Levy, in a phone interview, defended his condemnation of the boycott. “I have a duty to uphold the principles of the university,” he said. “One of the key principals is academic freedom.” He believes that yesterday’s forum was part of his commitment to allow debate on campus.

This summer’s statement wasn’t the only complaint forum participation brought against Levy, including the alleged “selling out to corporate interests.” But Levy, who was present during the forum, sat unflinching throughout the evening, not betraying his thoughts or emotions.

Professor Alan Sears called the boycott a defense of academic freedom. “It is an important tool in the defense of academic freedom ... the boycott is a pressure tactic for genuine freedom for Palestinians who are deprived of it.”

Despite criticizing Levy, Murray spoke against the Israel boycott, noting that a number of the strongest critics of Israeli policies are Israeli academics. "They would be silenced as well," he said.

Sears was not the only one who felt that silencing others was the best method of protecting academic freedom; student activist Heather Kere, one of the organizers of the event and a key figure pushing for a boycott against Israel, started the evening by attacking Levy’s opposition to the boycott. She claims that his opposition “silences many voices” and stifles debate.

Sears and Kere clearly missed the irony of their positions by arguing that the best way to protect freedom is to take it away.

Sears joked that he understood how important academic freedom is; he said that he relies on it as somebody who challenges the social conventions of society.

John Caruana, one of the panelists opposed to a boycott, made clear after the event that supporting academic freedom "is not supporting the Israeli regime."

Murray agreed: "If the roles were reversed, I would be defending Palestinian academic freedom.”

-with files from Erin Millar