Letter from Avraham Oz, Haifa University

An update written on a date where professional and personal concerns converge may require a special issue to be addressed. Today’s date traditionally marks both Shakespeare’s date of birth and death. It is also the Eve of Jewish Passover, known as the holiday of Liberation. As the old Chinese curse would has it, the Middle East will never fail to provide interesting occasions to furnish a special update.

The British AUT has voted a couple of days ago in favor of a motion to boycott two Israeli Universities, one of which is the one I am employed in. Since, I have been asked by many friends for my reaction to this, and I gather I owe you my response.

Whenever asked, over the last few years I expressed my opinion that even though the repressive policies of my country against the Palestinian population, especially in the territories occupied in 1967, is appalling, racist, sometimes horrifying in its cruelty, and often having crossed the boundaries of war crimes, academic boycott was neither morally justified nor effective. It does not distinguish between university administrations and faculty; nor am I sure that a proper mechanism was devised to distinguish between faculty members who think they can live in the ivory tower of academia in times of gross injustice and such – and there are many in Israeli academia – who risk their position for actively participating in acts of protest against of official policies of repression and cooperation with the victims of injustice.

However, while I still adhere to my opinion regarding this matter, both my government and my university hardly have a cause for complaint: they did whatever they could to provoke the responses leading to this, to my mind, erroneous move. The Ministress of Education and Culture, who will probably soon cry havoc on that boycott, is the same person who threatened to deny Daniel Barenboim a prestigious prize, and goes on demanding the firing of academics whom she blacklisted as traitors to the national cause. An academic community which didn’t shout its protest when an eminent academic and moral figure such as the late Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz was forced to withdraw the Israel prize following an ugly wave of political bigotry; which kept quiet when academic freedom in the Occupied Territories was constantly curbed by closures and harassments; which is even now piling on my friend and colleague Ilan Pappe as responsible for the move, while having cheered and elected the person who demanded his firing as their academic leader, but never seriously questioned the “academic privilege” overriding transparency when a formerly cum laude awarded thesis was suddenly disqualified by an anonymous group of readers following a political controversy surrounding its conclusions; such an academic community should first question its own standards, before proclaiming itself the victim of an anti-Semitic campaign. No equivalent to the AUT was ever created in Israel, to become a body where not only local problems are tackled in the face of a system which made higher education in Israel approach total crumbling, but also take a stand in matters which transcend local issues, and protect the rights of those individuals within academy who face injustice perpetrated by the administrations for protesting against the abuse of justice.

As many of you know, on a personal level, I have many reasons to endorse the allegations directed against my university: I will not elaborate on matters which are still subject to a court litigation. However, while still believing the AUT measure to have been counterproductive, I would advise my colleagues to look deeper into the circumstances which have led a majority of members of the AUT council to go along with such an extreme motion. Hiding our heads in the old arguments of Jew-baiting will not answer many viable questions directed at us, which we often fail to address. Justification for boycott aside, can we really, in all honesty, brush aside the issues directed not only against Israeli policies, but against the general functioning of academia in Israel? I wish all of us will take a moment, while celebrating tonight the holiday of Liberation, to ponder on “the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely… the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of th’unworthy takes,” rather than exonerate ourselves of any wrongdoing by assuming the role of the eternal victims.

For better days,

A. Oz

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