Thursday, January 27th | 25 Shevat 5782

May 30, 2016 6:53 pm

Universities, Academics in Italy, Scotland, Canada and US Pushing Back Against BDS Movement

avatar by Lea Speyer

An anti-Israel protest at a college campus. Photo: AMCHA Initiative.

An anti-Israel protest at a college campus. Photo: AMCHA Initiative.

In response to widespread efforts to isolate Israel spearheaded by the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a number of universities around the world have taken a stand this past week in support of the Jewish state. 

On Monday, it was reported by Israeli daily  Haaretz that Italy will bring its largest ever delegation of academics to Israel in what Italian officials say is a move aimed at countering BDS. The joint academic initiative comes on the heels of a petition signed by some 300 Italian academics who called on Italian universities to cancel agreements with their Israeli counterparts.

“It’s an unprecedented effort to respond concretely on a very delicate issue. We believe that research and universities should be free and open to dialogue and exchange,” Francesco Talo, Italy’s ambassador to Israel, told Haaretz. “We thought that the best answer would be action: to concretely do exactly the opposite of what some people ask us to do and bring a significant number of Italian researchers and academics to Israel. Everybody is free to say what they want, but we will respond with actions.”

The Italian academics and their Israeli peers will take part in a series of joint conferences and cooperative events to be held across Israel between Tuesday and Friday. On Thursday, the entire delegation is expected to gather at the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv where three cooperation agreements in the areas of biophysics and material sciences will be signed between Israeli and Italian universities.

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Meanwhile, in Canada, over 150 professors from Montreal’s McGill University signed an open letter condemning BDS, the Canadian Jewish News reported on Friday. The informal letter came on the heels of a statement by McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier denouncing the passage of a BDS motion at the Students’ Society of McGill University Winter 2016 General Assembly in March. Fortier said the BDS movement “flies in the face of the tolerance and respect we cherish as values fundamental to a university. It proposes actions that are contrary to the principles of academic freedom, equity, inclusiveness and the exchange of views and ideas in responsible, open discourse.”

The letter endorses Fortier’s statement against the BDS movement, with signatories congratulating the McGill official for her “courageous stance.” The letter states, in part:

While we as signatories have many different opinions about Israel and we affirm the need for a robust debate about any country’s policies, including Israel’s, the tone and tactics of the BDS movement echo traditional antisemitic obsessions and tropes. As educators, we are distressed when we hear our students telling at us how uncomfortable they have been made to feel by an increasingly aggressive pursuit of the anti-Israel boycott, reflected by the repeated attempts to vote it in, no matter how many times the supporters fail.

We all need to affirm our commitment to fighting bigotry of all kinds, even when masked behind human rights rhetoric or even if allied with political positions we might support. We fail when our students don’t feel genuinely safe in our university and the BDS movement has made McGill students feel unsafe, unsupported, and unwelcome in their and our academic home.

Over in Scotland, the Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) Trustee Board declined to adopt a BDS motion passed in March by the school’s Student Council. In a statement released by EUSA last week, the Trustees announced that “the BDS motion as it is written cannot be legally implemented by EUSA.”

The University of Edinburgh’s Israel Engagement Society (IES) praised the EUSA’s decision, saying in a statement, “IES strongly believes that BDS is a dangerous, divisive and discriminatory campaign tactic that risks undermining peace talks and cohesion on campus, and made this clear in its representations to EUSA in conjunction with other groups of concerned students. EUSA’s dropping of the policy follows a precedent set by other universities, recognizing the illegality of BDS and the significant risk of increasing intolerance against minority groups on campus that it poses.” While the BDS motion will not be enacted, IES said, the EUSA’s website will continue to display that the Student Council’s referendum passed.

In New York, Cornell Tech announced last week the appointment of a new director to the Joan & Irwin Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute. The center — to be headed by world renowned artificial intelligence computer scientist Ron Brachman — was launched as an academic partnership in 2011 between Cornell University and the Technion Israel-Institute of Technology.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) strongly condemned the partnership in 2012, stating it was “deeply disturbed” by the collaboration and called on Cornell to break ties with the Technion. PACBI accused both institutions of being “complicit in Israel’s violations of international law and the rights of Palestinians…all New York City residents should, rightfully, be outraged that their tax dollars are being apportioned in the service of such an endeavor.”

In recent years, the BDS movement has seen a surge of support from institutions of higher learning and academics around the world. Prominent academic organizations, such as the American Studies Association, the African Literature Association, the Teachers Union of Ireland and the National Women’s Studies Association, have expressed support for academic boycotts against Israel.

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