Sunday, June 1, 2008

Academic Boycotts, Anyone?

Last Fall I posted my opinions pro and con the academic boycott against Israel. See it here. In brief: I am pro, if it works; con, if it doesn't. My "default mode" is academic freedom, but academic freedom is conditional on other freedoms and is not absolute. That's a philosophically respectable position, but so is absolutism. The views of those who are absolutely opposed to limits on academic freedom cannot be easily dismissed. They and I will argue over where and when to draw the line.

So I expect the absolutists on the left and on the right to come out loud and clear against the curtailment of academic freedom for Gazans. Some, such as Natan Sharansky, have done so already here Rabbi Melchior of the religious left-leaning Meimad party, has even drawn comparisons between historical attempts to prevent Jews from studying and the Israeli government's attempt to bar Gazans from studying. He is the only religious Tzadik in Sedom (righteous person in Sodom) on this issue.

Not everybody is an absolutist like Sharansky and Melchior. Yuval Steinitz was quoted as saying,
We are fighting the regime in Gaza that does its utmost to kill our citizens and destroy our schools and our colleges. So I don’t think we should allow students from Gaza to go anywhere. Gaza is under siege, and rightly so, and it is up to the Gazans to change the regime or its behavior.”
It would have been more appropriate (and truthful) for him to say:
It is in Israel's long-term security interest to have Islamist regimes on our borders who will blow up Jews and bomb out towns. That way we can arouse the sympathy of the world and control Gaza and the West Bank forever. For this reason we helped create Hamas. The last thing we want is the creation of a strong and decent Palestinian civil society which will put pressure on Israel to compromise

But, frankly, Steinitz -- who has a phd in philosophy, which just goes to show that you can study that discipline and still have a mushy brain -- doesn't see where his reasoning leads to.

It was one thoughtful blogger, a "Wisconsin Yankee" sociologist currently in Israel, who pointed out that Steinitz's reasoning was precisely the same as those who advocate an academic boycott against Israel -- i..e, those who argue that the curtailment of academic exchange is a legitimate tactic in order to change a repressive and unjust government.

The Wisconsin Yankee is on the side of the absolutists. Does this mean that I am on the side of (shudder!) Yuval Steinitz and the boycotters, who obviously are not absolutists on academic freedom?

The answer is yes and no. Yes, I am not an absolutist; no, I still think are mistaken when they defend the curtailment of academic freedoms. I have written about how the academic boycott against Israel has not yet worked; it has backfired precisely because it provokes the absolutist response. I am waiting to see how the boycott tactic will development. My hunch is that we shall return to the boycott at a later date and that, ultimately, it will be implemented with the approval of many. Till then, I will write nothing against it.

With respect to the educational boycott against Gaza, the question again is tactical. If Israel genuinely want a two-state solution, it will support policies that will help encourage that. So allowing Gazans to attend institutes of higher education is a no-brainer policy that even a Sharansky can favor. The fact that Gazans have been prevented for seven years to do precisely that shows how abysmally short-sighted Israel's policy is.

It also shows how liberals will wake up only when they read about unjust policies in the New York Times. The Fullbright fellowship cancellation is just the latest of oppressive measures against the Palestinians in Gaza, including not allowing Gazans to pursue post baccalaureate higher education.

I should also mention that here is a big difference between a call for a limited boycott from a voluntary association, and a military curtailment of civil rights, including the right to education.