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January 9, 2014 6:39 pm

U.S.-Israeli Prof. Slams MLA Conference as Assault on Academic Freedom (INTERVIEW)

avatar by Joshua Levitt

Prof. Ilan Troen. Photo: Brandeis.

Prof. Ilan Troen. Photo: Brandeis.

An American-Israeli professor, addressing a counter-conference on the sidelines of a polemical Modern Language Association annual meeting in Chicago, on Thursday said the MLA resolution seeking to sanction Israel was an academic sham promoted by a hypocritical Arab ideologue who actually benefited from the embrace of multiculturalism by Israeli universities that the resolution aims to vilify.

In a revealing interview with The Algemeiner, Ilan Troen, Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University and Professor Emeritus at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said the core accusation of the MLA resolution which condemns Israel for restricting foreign scholars from visiting the Palestinian territories is “simply not true.”

Ironically, he said, the main voice behind the MLA resolution is Omar Barghouti, a founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, who was born in Qatar, received a Masters in electrical engineering  from Columbia University, in New York, and graduate degree in Ethics from Tel Aviv University, where a petition, with 184,000 signatures, was presented to expel him for his work denigrating Israel. But the president of the school refused to do so, on the basis of academic freedom.

“The resolution is about not honoring rights of Palestinians to higher education, that Israel doesn’t permit people to come into the West bank or Gaza to teach, which is simply not true,” Prof. Troen said. “This is a malicious, mendacious excuse to use a false issue to boycott Israel.”

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“The fact is that Americans of all descents go to teach in Palestinian universities,” he said. “The resolution talks about the arbitrary inhibition of Americans of Palestinian descent to enter the West Bank or Gaza, which is simply not true and they present no evidence.”

Prof Troen gave the example of Haifa University, where 3,000 Arabs who grew up under the Palestinian Authority attend the school, a third of the undergraduate student body, with another 1,200 there doing graduate studies. Meanwhile, he said, there are some 3,000 academic programs to help them pass national matriculation, to be able to study at the university level.

At Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where Prof. Troen served as Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences and as Director of the Ben-Gurion Research Institute and Archives, in Sede Boker, he said a program called Achva, meaning “solidarity” or “brotherhood” was created as “a place where Jews and Arabs could go to learn together.”

He said that among Arabs living under the PA or in Israel,  “no group is engaged in supporting a boycott.”

“This is externally generated by people hostile to Israel as a state… not from the Arab population,” he said. “Even in the Future Vision documents written by Arab intellectuals, most of whom teach at Israeli universities, they argue about problems in Arab society, and not once do they call for a boycott of part of the system, but to enlarge opportunities to participate, not to eliminate them.”

He listed three major areas where Jews and Arabs work together in academia. In medicine, where 300 Arab doctors are working with Jews in joint research on issues “from cerebral palsy to cancer to drug abuse;” in desertification, where, Israeli academics are world leaders in arid zone irrigation, desalinization and solar power, and work on projects that include many Arabs from those living in the PA and in Israel, as well as Egyptians and Jordanians, and “none of them are interested in boycott;” and in working on new narratives, a more complex issue.

“Twenty years ago, academics from both sides tried to mitigate the conflict by sharing their narratives, to create a single unity narrative, but they found that each one holds their own truth, and marshals facts to support it,” said Prof. Troen. “Then the academics started work on parallel narratives, like in nature, ideas that do not meet, but each side learns the other person’s narrative, a way of engendering empathy that can lead to mutual understanding. And none want to boycott the other, that’s how important this is for those academics working together on these issues.”

“I think [supporters of the MLA resolution] all could learn a great deal from academics actually working together on essential scientific research, which has no limits, no borders, cannot be hijacked for political cause,” he said. “This is just another attempt to boycott Israel by a coterie of polemicists for the sake of political gains, who have gone to this huge organization which has allowed their hatred to slip through.”

He described those behind the resolution as a “travelling roadshow, who go from university to university, from association to association” to denigrate Israel. “This is antithetical to the spirit of academic freedom and a necessity for higher education to engage in unimpeded joint research across all borders.”

“I think it’s telling that 157 university presidents have signed statements that they do not support the ASA [American Studies Association] boycott of Israel, true academics do not want to see Israel become a pariah state,” he said.

Born in Boston, Prof. Troen made aliyah in 1975 before returning to lead the Brandeis program. His permanent home is in Omer, a community outside Beer-Sheva.

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