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”.

7 Responses to “Academic Boycott conference at TCD”

  1. Jonathan Says:
    Please don’t call it a ‘Conference’. It is another hatefest. And an oxymoronic hatefest, Because it claims to be about ‘free speech’ but the call for papers makes it clear that discussion of whether Israel merits a boycott will be forbidden .

  2. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    I would like to repeat the comment I made in relation to the proposed conference at Southampton U. and the actual event in Cork (at least one day of which was at the University there). The latter is dealt with by Denis MacEoin here In relation to both events I have argued that they are plainly not academic conferences (which always (or should) presume the possibility of questioning of and dissent from any premises advanced). What they are are meetings of the committed to confirm their commitment to a particular course of action.

    As such, they should be labelled as what they are and not held on academic premises: this demeans the premises in question.

    The participants should be free to say whatever they wish about anything they like (provided they stay within the law of whatever country they are in).

    Just be honest about what you are doing. Which, sadly, is going to be a continuation of the project of delegitimating Israel and denying a respectful platform to those who would present an alternative view.

    Hardly fits the definition of “academic” does it? Other than in the ironic sense of “meaningless”, of course.

    But since when have those who would delegitimise Israel ever cared about the dictionary definition of “academic”?

  3. Jonathan Says:

    My proposed paper has been rejected …

    Title: ‘Free Speech Is Not Pick ‘N Mix’

    Abstract: Academics should absolutely have freedom to advocate a boycott of Israeli academics but the same applies to those who oppose an academic boycott of Israel. The arguments that opponents of an academic boycott can put include: that it is discriminatory (see legal opinion given to AUTE); that discussion of a boycott infringes in the UK the Equality Duty that universities have to Jewish students; that it encourages extremism thereby (in the UK) infringing the Prevent Duty of universities; that insofar as discussion infringes the precepts of the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism, it is antisemitic. The Call for Papers states that “the conference does not propose to debate the pros and cons of the academic boycott of Israel”. In other words, it will be assumed that an academic boycott is justified. This is entirely wrong and is itself a suppression of free speech in a Conference which is supposed to be discussing free speech! The fact is that boycotts are sometimes justified, eg in the case of apartheid South Africa or Nazi Germany. In the case of Israel they are absolutely NOT justified.

  4. Jonathan Says:

    The Irony: A Conference on Free Speech which outlaws Free Speech ………..

    • s4r4hbrown Says:

      Sorry to hear that. Was there any feedback?

      • Jonathan Says:

        “Dear Jonathan,

        I am sorry to inform you that your paper has not been accepted for
        inclusion in the programme of the conference on “Freedom of speech and
        Higher Education: The case of the academic boycott of Israel” on 12
        September 2017.

        There were many high quality abstracts submitted, and as the
        conference is a small affair and on a very specific topic, we
        unfortunately could not accept all the submissions.

        If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

        David Landy
        On behalf of the conference organising committee”

        • Michael Yudkin Says:

          I’m sorry to be so terribly slow on the uptake, but readers might be interested to know of another paper rejected by the organisers of the Academic Boycott meeting at TCD. Here are the title, the abstract and the rejection email.

          Advocates of the academic boycott and the misuse of language

          Michael Yudkin1 and Patrick Bateson2

          Political actors often try to enhance the appeal of their cause by seeking the support of academics, in the hope that such support will make their advocacy more convincing. Their motive for enlisting academics is obvious: the public believe that academics adhere to professional norms, and so will expect their statements to be considered and judicious. Academics who advocate political points of view therefore have a duty to ensure that their assertions are truthful: the publication of statements that are false damages not only the reputation of the signatories but that of the academic world in general.
          Academic advocates of a boycott of Israel fail to uphold this duty when they make factual statements that purport to be true but are in fact false or misleading. We shall analyse examples of such statements taken from material published by the supporters of the boycott.

          1 Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry, University of Oxford
          2 Emeritus Professor of Ethology, University of Cambridge

          Dear Dr Yudkin,

          I am afraid to inform you that your paper has not been accepted for inclusion in the programme of the conference on “Freedom of speech and Higher Education: The case of the academic boycott of Israel” on 12 September 2017.

          There were many high quality abstracts submitted, and as the conference is a small affair and on a very specific topic, we unfortunately could not accept all the submissions.

          We’re sorry about that, and if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.


          David Landy

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