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ISRAEL: LAT opinion piece on boycott makes waves

August 24, 2009 |  6:52 am

In an L.A. Times  opinion piece last week, Israeli professor Neve Gordon wrote of his painful conclusion that the only way to advance the two-state solution that would save Israel from becoming an apartheid state was massive pressure through boycott. Gordon, who teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, is not shy about his personal politics.

His extreme position angered many in and outside of Israel. Education Minister Gideon Saar decried the article and called it repugnant. Gordon's own university has conveyed its displeasure too. A statement from its president, Rivka Carmi, expressed shock and outrage at Gordon's "irresponsible and morally reprehensible" remarks, saying the institution "strongly dissociates itself from Gordon's destructive views" and adding that "academics who entertain such resentment toward their country are welcome to consider another professional and personal home."

But the bigger debate this has provoked in Israel is a discussion of academic freedom and freedom of speech.  Carmi said Gordon had abused the freedom of speech availed to him in Israel and the university as well. On radio, she said academic freedom was the freedom to research and teach, not the freedom to make harmful and inciting remarks.

The Assn. for Civil Rights in Israel issued its own statement, defending Gordon's right to express his political views and expressing dismay at the university's reaction, which the group urged the academic community to denounce. In a letter sent to university President Carmi, the association's legal advisor, attorney Dan Yakir, said the university's response paid lip service to academic freedom while bluntly trampling it.

The boycott tool, as Gordon himself acknowledged, is a problematic one. Some argue it is a legitimate,  nonviolent means of pressuring parties into doing the right thing; others see an inherent flaw in achieving peace through a method that boils down to "don't force it, get a larger hammer."

The university is concerned that the institution could suffer for Gordon's stance.  "This kind of Israel-bashing detracts from the wonderful work that is being done at BGU and at all Israeli universities," said Carmi's statement. School officials worry that the only boycott following Gordon's pronouncement could be a boycott of the university, affecting about 25,000 students and faculty and possibly undermining research and work carried out for the enhancement of the diverse communities of Israel's southern Negev area. Such an occurrence would be an ironic disservice to coexistence, they say. Carmi herself, for example, is a geneticist who has focused much of her work on stemming the spread of hereditary diseases among the area's Bedouin community.

Yaakov ("Yaki") Dayan, Israel's consul general in L.A., wrote Carmi a letter, portions of which were quoted in Israel daily newspaper Haaretz. He warned her in the letter that he'd been contacted by "people who care for Israel," including benefactors of the university who were unanimous in threatening to withhold donations. His attempts to explain to them that "one bad apple" wouldn't affect hundreds of researchers were futile, he wrote.

Outrage at the private politics of academic faculty or over academic institutions hosting provocative speakers is common in a country where political passions run high. These incidents could be seen as indications of healthy academic freedom. Earlier this year, left-leaning academics petitioned Tel Aviv University to protest the appointment of Colonel Pnina Sharvit-Baruch as a law-faculty lecturer and demanded the appointment be revoked (it wasn't). She headed the Israeli military's international law division during the Gaza operation; the appointment met with opposition on the grounds that she had legitimized controversial strikes against Palestinian civilians during the operation.  

Then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert blasted the petitioners as "self-righteous hypocrites."

So far, only around 100 people have signed an online petition calling for Gordon's dismissal from his tax-payed position, compared with more than 10,000 who signed one Sunday to boycott Swedish companies, including Ikea, over a separate issue. Now there are calls for boycotting the university. The university says it is "exploring its options concerning Gordon's actions."

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

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