Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Hundreds of University Presidents Denounce Boycott

Today's full-page American Jewish Committee ad in the New York Times, featuring hundreds of university presidents who have signed onto a statement by Columbia's Lee Bollinger that denounces the UCU's resolution to sponsor a boycott of the Israeli academy, pulls the rug out from underneath the feet of those planning a similar action in the United States. Kudos to the AJC for pulling this off.

Here is Lee Bollinger's statement:
At Columbia, I am proud to say that we embrace Israeli scholars and universities that the UCU is now all too eager to isolate—as we embrace scholars from many countries regardless of divergent views on their government’s policies. Therefore, if the British UCU is intent on pursuing its deeply misguided policy, then it should add Columbia to its boycott list, for we do not intend to draw distinctions between our mission and that of the universities you are seeking to punish. Boycott us, then, for we gladly stand together with our many colleagues in British, American and Israeli universities against such intellectually shoddy and politically biased attempts to hijack the central mission of higher education.

7 comments:

Noah K said...

How do you like Bollinger and Columbia leading the charge on this? As they say, getting out in front of the voters? I was actually sitting next to a couple of their Jewish Studies faculty at a Japanese restaurant in Morningside Heights this morning. Did you realize that their Jewish Studies program is called "The Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies?" The people I heard today didn't seem to be much concerned with Israel or political science, though, more intellectual history. Moses Mendelsohn ended up ruining my lunch!

Jared said...

I personally was fully aware that the Jewish Studies program at Columbia is called the "Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies" since I am a PhD candidate at Columbia, although I am housed in the religion department. There is not a Jewish studies dept here, but an interdisciplinary program. The focus IS on intellectual history and, of course, textual study, largely due to the guiding hand of Yosef Yerushalmi for the former. And the other rock of the Jewish studies program was, of course, David Weiss-Halivni, who just retired. Actually, because of that, the program is undergoing revamping at the moment. Although we just hired David Stern (Midrash), who will be housed in the religion department, and I think the Columbia Law School is about to bring in some solid Jewish studies comparative law people (but this is rumor, last I knew), which might bring in some political issues.

I personally enjoy intellectual history...is the problem the inclusion of the word "Israel"?

In addition, Israeli/Palestinian issues are heightened at Columbia due to the prevalence of both Israeli and Palestinian professors of both on campus. Many accusations have been levelled on both sides by groups who oppose them both from within and without, so Bollinger may be more sensitive to some of these issues since he arrived from U Mich.

But whether this makes Bollinger better or worse equipped for leading the charge on this, I simply do not know.

I am generally suspicious of any activities of university presidents, especially those of my own president, so, notwithstanding everything I have already said, I do not think your doubts are unfounded.

Amos said...

Actually, one of the key academic insiders behind this effort is probably Harold Shapiro, President Emeritus of Princeton, who has long been involved with AJC. Getting Bollinger to lead this was a big symbolic victory. But I think the number of signatures that they were able to gather shows just how distasteful the UCU boycott appeared to the mainstream of American academia.

Jared - I think the professors are a small part of the story. Certainly, Israeli (visiting or resident) professors hardly ever engage in "pro-Israel" activism (you're more likely to find them on the opposite side of the fence); the same is not true for Palestinian, Arab, and/or Muslim professors in general, who often lead the charge for quite radical efforts against Israel. However, at Columbia, the main people raising the ruckus are undergrads. There was an interesting documentary about student activists at Columbia and Berkeley called Campus Battleground that we reviewed here a while ago.

The "Israel Studies" phenomenon is a reaction against the marginalization of anything connected to Israel in many Middle Eastern Studies departments across the country.

Noah - What were they saying about the Son of Mendel? Having read at least one long-winded paper on him, you were probably in a good position to make sense of their discussion.

Jared said...

Amos, I largely agree with your clarifications. You caught me generalizing a bit, although I brought up the professors largely in response to the note on the "institute for Israel and Jewish studies."

Some complications or extra notes on your clarifications:
I did not mean to imply that professors were completely central, although your point on the difference between the pro-Israel professors and the pro-Palestine professors is true to the extent of being loud (this is largely the legacy of Said). Pro-Israel professors tend to move about a little more quietly, which, in the long term, may be a more effective way of making your presence felt. Whether loud on the main college walk, loud in the classroom, or just encouraging your constituency in the classroom, pro-Israel and pro-Palestine professors DO make their presence felt and, in that sense, even if not being loud themselves, I think they provide some intellectual and social support for the very vocal undergraduates. But this is not the only or even the main motivation, but I think highly relevant.

It is definitely true that the undergrad students on all issues (not just this one) are always the most vocal...but that is part and parcel of college life in general, when, for many students, they are just awakening into major political issues. AT this point in their lives, what is taught in the classroom (whether as the primary subject or just as off-hand commments) breaks out onto the street.

btw, what was the Japanese restaurant? I think there are two near my apartment (I live in Morningside Heights).

Noah K said...

Guys,

Thanks for your responses. I was actually going to get up today and take that comment down lest it provoke misunderstanding and ire. It probably should have been a personal aside, but, in fact, Jared, it's really cool to get your comments. So, yeah, I have an impressionistic understanding of the temperature of the Israeli/Palestinian issue on Columbia's campus from alumni and news reports. Given that, finding Israel front and center in their Jewish Studies program piqued my interest. What Amos says about bringing Israel (back) into the academy makes a lot of sense if you look at their website: there's a slideshow "Image Gallery: Modern Israel" on their landing page, and many, many of these pictures are of academic institutions. The message is pretty clear: Israel has a major part to play in the American academy, both as an object of study and -- to return to the subject of the post -- as a nation of colleagues! So, I'm not suspicious of the word "Israel" in the institute's title, just intrigued.

Bollinger, to me, is a college president uniquely worthy of following. He's high profile for a reason.

Mendelsohn? Something about history of science, creationism, I don't know? I was trying not to choke on my vegetable tempura. It was across Broadway from "The Heights."

Jared said...

I understand choking on cosmogonic myths (the "scientific" ones too).

I was aware of the documentary mentioned. In fact, it made quite a stir on campus when it came out, but I have never had the chance to see it and so I cannot comment on it.

I found the comments by Yaman after your review particularly illuminating, especially regarding the disjuncture between the interview and the edited final product. I fear this is rather common in documentaries, where you might have a 3 hour interview and you have no idea which 30-60 seconds they might use (most likely the least relevant from your own perspective). I have a feeling that Yaman was not alone in this respect in this documentary. My question would be who funded the project and why would that person or group want to emphasize identity issues over economic and social structures and so forth?

Anyway, I have been enjoying this conversation quite a bit.

Amos said...

Yes, I, too, have been enjoying this conversation.

Regarding the documentary, the producer talked before the screening, and I got the sense that he was simply most interested in the story of these college students growing up, discovering themselves, resolving identity issues. It is, to be fair, the most universal narrative one can construct out of what to many American television viewers must surely be somewhat alienating. After all, many people are likely to wonder why these kids, most of whom were born here, are devoting so much passion to something taking place thousands of miles away from them, and why some of them seem to be more attached to the problems and causes of a distant and foreign place than to the kinds of issues occupying "normal" college students (beer, guys and girls, facebook pictures).