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Boycotting Israel at NYU? By: Martin Kramer
MartinKramer.org | Monday, April 05, 2004


The habitual academic petition-signers against Israel are out in force, in a letter to Hebrew University president Menachem Magidor. They charge that Israel "makes it difficult or impossible for Palestinian teachers and students to reach their universities," and that Israeli troops are responsible for "harassment, arrests, random shootings and assaults" on Palestinian campuses. The occupation itself, they write, "disrupts the necessary framework for any successful educational structure." The signatories of the letter call themselves "defenders of Palestinian academic freedom and supporters of the academic boycott against Israel." And they ask "the Israeli academic leadership where it stands on the issue of current Israeli policy, and to share with us what Israeli academic institutions are doing to challenge the behavior of your government." (For more, see this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.)

Now I don't speak for anyone else, but I know where I would lay the blame for the plight of Palestinian academic institutions. (By the way, there wasn't even one such institution in the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, and every one of them was established under the Israeli occupation.) I would lay the blame on the Palestinian Authority for choosing war, and on the violent militias that use campuses as recruitment stations for terrorists.

Nevertheless, Israeli academics have never boycotted Palestinian professors, even in the worst days of terror. To the contrary: if you're organizing a conference in Israel, it's almost obligatory to have a Palestinian professor on the podium. Free exchange is what academic freedom means, and Israeli universities have done an admirable job of upholding it in trying times. In contrast, the academic boycott against Israel is itself a gross violation of academic freedom, because it explicitly imposes a political litmus test on Israeli scholars. It's radical-style McCarthyism.

Among the American signatories, there are a handful of Middle East academics. Only one stands out: Professor
Zachary Lockman, who identifies himself as director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University. He stands out because he's the only signatory with any academic clout. In fact, not only did he become director of NYU's Middle East center last fall. His center simultaneously became a self-standing Title VI National Resource Center for the Middle East. Its activities enjoy a federal subsidy of around $400,000 a year.

Now that Lockman has announced himself as a "supporter of the academic boycott against Israel," the question for New York University and the U.S. Department of Education is a simple one. Is it Lockman's intention to implement the boycott that he supports, in the National Resource Center that he administers? If the answer is yes, then New York University's provost should insist he step down. It's unthinkable that a comprehensive center for Middle Eastern studies would boycott Israeli academics. (Tell the
provost yourself if you agree.) And it's unthinkable that the U.S. government would subsidize such a center. If Lockman is going to walk the boycott walk at the Kevorkian Center, its federal subsidy should be revoked immediately.

Now it may be that Lockman supports the boycott only in principle, and has no intention of acting on his principle. But having signed the petition as the director of the Kevorkian Center, and not simply as an NYU professor (which would have sufficed for identification purposes), he has to clarify that point. Specifically, he must reassure New York University and the U.S. Department of Education that no boycott, in any form whatsoever, open or tacit, will be implemented at the Kevorkian Center. Anything less than an explicit reassurance will leave a cloud of suspicion hanging over the place.

When I was a center director, in the 1990s, I was careful to stay clear of political controversy, so as not to drag my colleagues down my own alley. Professor Lockman seems to feel no comparable obligation. His colleagues might ask themselves whether they can afford this sort of academic "leadership." They should affirm that Lockman doesn't speak for them or the Kevorkian Center, whose name he has deliberately put on a political statement. If they feel otherwise, they should announce that as well. (Professor Timothy Mitchell, previous director, also signed the boycott letter.) So Lockman wants to know where every academic in Israel stands? Let's first find out where every member and affiliate of the Kevorkian Center stands.

Update: I'm pleased to report that Professor Lockman has clarified his position to the provost of NYU, repudiating the boycott. "Neither I nor NYU's Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, which I direct, advocate or implement such a boycott," Lockman writes in a letter dated April 2. And he adds:

I signed the letter as a supporter of academic freedom for Palestinian scholars and academic institutions, not as a supporter of a boycott against Israel. However, the wording of the letter was such that it could have led people to construe my support for the defense of the academic freedom of Palestinians as an endorsement of a boycott of Israeli scholars and academic institutions, which is not the case. In reality, neither the Kevorkian Center, nor I as an individual, advocates or practices a boycott of Israeli scholars or academic institutions. In fact, the Center regularly hosts visiting scholars and professors from Israel and maintains ongoing relations with Israeli academic institutions, and issues related to Israel are part of the Center's program.

NYU provost David McLaughlin has accepted Lockman's assurances. The boycott letter that Lockman signed, McLaughlin adds, "was poorly constructed, its wording inadequately precise, and so his signing of it unclear as to his intentions." Actually, I thought it was pretty straightforward. And as Lockman says he signed the letter via the Internet, I wonder how he failed to notice that the web address of the letter is www.academicboycott.org, and the title of the webpage is "Boycott Israeli Academic and Research Institutions: Open Letter." That's not exactly subtle. Even so, I will not dispute the assurances he's now given.

The main thing, however, is that the provost has added his own assurances:

The University's position on calls for a boycott is clear. It stands firm against any such boycott, which by its very nature runs counter to the essence of the University, and to the values to which New York University in particular is committed. Our view is that the University is a space that encourages open, free and continuous dialogue free from fear of recrimination.

That's an important statement by the university's leading academic official, it binds the entire university, and I'm delighted to have elicited it.

If there is a lesson here, it is that academics, who make their livelihood by the crafting of written and spoken words, should be discriminating in what they sign. I'll continue to keep a sharp eye on the doings of the Kevorkian Center and its director. But from my point of view, Lockman has done the right thing. I hope the other signatories will follow suit.




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