Thursday, November 12, 2009

Trondheim University Unanimously Rejects Boycott of Israel

It's ironic that, just as a major Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions organizing conference is about to take place at Hampshire College, the BDS movement suffered a major setback. The Board of Governors of the prestigious Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) of Trondheim today unanimously rejected an academic boycott of Israel.

As the Jerusalem Post reported:
Had the proposal passed, NTNU would have been the first Western university to sever ties with Israeli universities.

"As an academic institution, NTNU's mission is to stimulate the study of the causes of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and how it can be resolved. This means that the university is also dependent on being able to cooperate with Israeli academics and hear their views on the conflict," the 12 board members said in a statement released by the university.
In fact, although board members took time to express their views on the Middle East—and in doing so, many chose to criticize the occupation—not a single one even spoke in favor of the proposal.

Professor Bjørn Alsberg of NTSU, who led the local opposition, explained in Haaretz:
"The main arguments raised were that Norwegian universities should not [make] their own foreign policies, and that a boycott would be harmful to NTNU."

According to Alsberg, who collected signatures from over 100 NTNU scholars against the boycott, the move was prevented due to "a combination of factors." He said these included media attention; opposition to the boycott by the Norwegian Ministry for Higher Education; and petitions, including his own.

But Erez Uriely, director of the Oslo-based Center against Anti-Semitism, said the boycott was prevented largely thanks to Alsberg's petition.

"Norwegian politicians often take anti-Israeli positions and then renege when this creates an outcry," he said. "The petition against a boycott of Israel at NTNU is an unusual event which tipped the scale."
Press reports generally attribute the defeat at least in part to unexpectedly strong opposition from academics around the world. Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, for example, collected some 3500 signatures in protest in the span of a week. And the American Association of University Professors, a leading organization defending the rights of faculty and academic freedom, weighed in with its powerful voice. It reiterated its principled opposition to all academic boycotts (the detailed exposition, prompted by the first major attempt to boycott Israeli universities in 2005, should be mandatory reading). Notably, it in addition forcefully rejected the oft-advanced analogy to the anti-apartheid movement and praised the academic freedom found in Israel's universities:
Years ago the AAUP supported a comprehensive economic boycott of South Africa’s apartheid regime, but we have always opposed focused boycotts of academic institutions. As a number of Norwegian faculty members have pointed out, despite its problems, Israel has the best record of supporting academic freedom of any country in the area. Israeli academics exercise their academic freedom by both supporting and criticizing government policies. A boycott applying to Israeli faculty members thus paradoxically punishes some of the country’s most vocal critics.

But the AAUP’s policy against academic boycotts—detailed in our 2006 statement on the subject--is based on the still more fundamental principle that free discussion among all faculty members worldwide should be encouraged, not inhibited. Certainly those Norwegian faculty members already working on joint projects with Israeli colleagues should not have their academic freedom taken away from them. In the long run, more, not less, dialogue with Israeli faculty members is an important way to promote peace in the region.
Simple but strong words. And dialogue is the key word.

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