Published in The Jerusalem Post on July 21, 2002
From the outside, universities appear to many as genteel, cultured and tranquil oases of wisdom. In truth, institutions of higher education are often great, brutal battlefields of ideology, philosophy and personal self-aggrandizement.
When it come to Israel and Zionism, especially, campus debates here and abroad closely resemble armed combat. Physical violence against Jews or Zionists is rare. The maliciousness of academia, rather, is gloved in language of academic refinement.
Recently, even the gloves are coming off. In the US, campus campaigns are underway to force universities to withdraw their investments in companies connected to Israel much like the divestment campaign against South Africa in the mid-1980s.
In Europe some academics are pressing the EU to suspend scientific relations with Israeli universities and companies. In England the specter of an academic boycott against Israeli professors has reared its head.
Fortunately, pro-Israel forces are fighting back.
Following Operation Defensive Shield in April (and the attendant, false accusations of an Israeli “massacre” in Jenin), a group of professors at Berkeley, Harvard, MIT, Cornell, Princeton (and later the University of California college system) declared themselves “appalled by Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians,” by Jewish “colonization” of Palestinian territory, by Israeli “violations” of UN resolutions, and so on.
They circulated a petition calling on the US government to end military aid and arms sales to Israel, and on their universities to divest from Israel and from US companies that sell arms to Israel.
About 500 academics signed the petition. Prof. Ruth Wisse of Harvard U. immediately called the petition “corrupt and cowardly,” noting that many of its signatories had long been known for leftist anti-Americanism.
These were the same people, she said, who for decades had railed against the so-called “crimes” of American capitalism, against US “colonization” of Third World countries and against US “abuses” of human rights.
With Americans still smarting from 9/11, she said, these hackneyed critics were finding it tough to attack Washington. Instead, they rev up antagonism against America’s “proxy,” the Jewish state.
In response, pro-Israel faculty and students launched their own petitions against divestiture. So far, over 7,000 signatures have been collected at Harvard, MIT and UCLA alone. The most important part of this counter-campaign is its message: the concern for human rights is on our side of the fight! “We will not let Marxists, anti-Semites and anti-Zionists co-opt the language of justice and rights to accuse Jews of precisely the crimes committed against them by Arab despots,” Wisse wrote.
IN EUROPE too, the forces of light are winning the day, so far despite virulently anti-Israel media coverage of the Mideast conflict.
Responding in April to pro-Arab petitioners who demanded suspension of ties to Israel, EU Commissioner for Research Philippe Bursquin wrote that “the European Commission is not in favor of a policy of sanctions against the parties to the conflict… I draw your attention to the very positive effects played by scientific cooperation between European, Israeli and Palestinian scientists and institutions.”
Over recent years, Israel has enjoyed full participant status in the EC’s 5th Framework Program for Research and Development. More than 420 joint Israeli-European scientific projects have been funded by the EU for a total cost of 160 million euros. The EU is to launch its 6th Framework Program this coming winter with more than 17 billion euros in available funding.
Some European legislators are pressing to keep Israel out of the new program; Jerusalem has expressed concern. Some academics here have also complained of discrimination, on political grounds, in EU distribution of actual grants.
Nevertheless, the EU says it is committed to renewing its scientific research agreements with Israel, and that politics plays no role in the proposal-acceptance and grant-distribution processes.
The tides also seem to be turning in our favor in England. An outcry followed the firing of two Israeli academics who were board members of intellectual journals because they were Israelis by an Egyptian-born academic in Manchester named Mona Baker. Prof. Baker now fears her college, the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, might sack her (it should).
The British foreign and education secretaries called Baker’s action “disgraceful.” Even some of the hard-Left signatories to a British petition calling for an academic boycott of Israelis have backed away from Baker, calling her move “distasteful recrimination.”
These skirmishes never end, requiring constant vigilance and perseverance in defense of Israel against its enemies in the halls of academia.
Urge your favorite professors to join the battle and add their names to counter-petitions at http://www.aaisc.net, http://www.israelaction.org/activism/Petition Sci.asp, and http://euroisrael.huji.ac.il.