Academic Boycott conference at TCD

Hot on the heels of the recent anti-Israel conference at UCC, comes this event at Trinity College Dublin:

Call for Papers – Freedom of Speech and Higher Education: The Case of the Academic Boycott of Israel

I don’t suppose it will come as any surprise to learn that the conference is not concerned with any possible threat to academic freedom of speech posed by such a boycott.

The Call for Papers (CFP) – one of the longest I’ve ever seen – begins:

Academic freedom includes the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfil their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the state or any other actor[.]

This cuts both ways. The organisers of the conference would presumably be concerned about the cancellation of an event involving Ben White at UCLAN. But would they also be worried by:

These events all involved non-Israeli speakers/participants – and yet people still tried to silence them.

However even though the CFP continues:

The enjoyment of academic freedom carries with it obligations, such as the duty to respect the academic freedom of others, to ensure the fair discussion of contrary views, and to treat all without discrimination on any of the prohibited grounds (UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “The Right to Education (Art.13),” December 8, 1999)

there is no acknowledgement of any challenge to freedom of speech caused by anti-Israel activism.

The organisers then go on to describe the negative effects of cuts, managerialism and bureaucracy on universities (fair enough). Particular concern is expressed over a possible impact on

the expression of dissenting and controversial views.

It rather depends what is meant by ‘dissenting and controversial’. It could be argued that having right of centre views might be seen as ‘dissenting and controversial’ in a university context. ‘Dissenting’ voices on the left might include Germaine Greer on transgender issues or Maryam Namazie on Islam. By contrast, in many academic contexts support for the Palestinian cause would be seen as normative, rather than an issue which might ‘lead to self-censorship and curtailing expression.’

Certainly one of the conference organisers, Connor McCarthy, doesn’t seem to have experienced any chilling impact on his free speech in this regard. His research profile notes that he is ‘a founder-member of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and of Academics for Palestine’. Ditto David Landy. The third organiser, Ronit Lentin, has similar research interests – and, interestingly, once distanced herself from a condemnation of Gilad Atzmon posted by Electronic Intifada.

The CFP then turns to the wider question of how, and how far, academia and political activism should combine. This concludes:

With growing global political polarisation, this question has returned to the spotlight with academics under fire for expressing political opinions in Turkey, the US and elsewhere.

This pairing – and here’s just one reminder of what academics are facing in Turkey – reminded me of Pope’s lines:

Not louder shrieks to pitying Heav’n are cast,

When husbands or when lapdogs breathe their last

Perhaps the CFP writers had US academic Steven Salaita in mind, as he is the first keynote speaker named. It is claimed that he ‘was denied a Professorship in University of Illinois due to his views on Israel/Palestine’. This is a rather bland summary of the objections to Salaita. These are just a couple of his controversial tweets:

You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing. (after the disappearance of the three murdered Israeli teens)

Zionists: transforming “antisemitism” from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.#Gaza #FreePalestine

(Here’s a link to a storify which aims to give a balanced perspective on Salaita, and here’s a critical post which discusses his academic publications.)

It might be possible to make a case against the unhiring of Salaita (he was made a job offer which was then withdrawn) in the context of US views on free speech or by analogy with other academics with very controversial views. But to claim that this happened because of ‘his views on Israel/Palestine’ isn’t really sufficient.

Finally, it’s good to note that:

Last week Trinity’s students union voted against a college-wide boycott of Israel by a “significant majority”.

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