A group of Israeli academics was in Brighton, in the UK, this week, trying to convince the University and College Union (UCU) that a boycott of Israeli universities is unjustified. Professor Zvi HaCohen of Ben-Gurion University is quoted in Ha’aretz of May 17, 2007, arguing that Israeli universities should not be boycotted because, inter alia, they “have no influence over the policies of the government or the parties.” This may or may not be the case, but what he isn’t saying is that the Israeli government exercises political influence over what are supposed to be academic decisions of Israeli researchers, and at least some of them — even at his own university! — are happy to go along.
I am the director of the Intelligent Systems Division of the University of Southern California’s Information Science Institute. In addition, I am a research professor at USC’s Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering and I head USC’s Digital Government Research Center. For many years I have been involved in digital government (e-government) research, and I have organized and participated in efforts to investigate the potential applications of information technology to disaster management and to responding to unexpected catastrophic events.
Unrelated to my professional life, but relevant to this story, is the fact that for many years I have been an outspoken critic of Zionism in general and Israeli policies in particular, including the occupation of Palestinian territories and the treatment of Palestinians there and in Israel itself. I hold these views despite of the fact that I grew up in Israel — or perhaps because of it.
Back in January of this year I was contacted by Prof. Paul Kantor of Rutgers University in New Jersey. He said that Dr. Bracha Shapira of BGU and he were co-organizing a small workshop on the Internet and its growing role in terrorist and anti-terrorist activities. The workshop would include 20-30 people from the US, Israel, the UK and other European countries and was being sponsored by NATO.
Prof. Kantor invited me to participate in this workshop. He said that the organizers were particularly interested in my presence and were very eager for me to accept the invitation. I have been involved in organizing related activities for several years now.
I told Prof. Kantor that I would have to consider other obligations I had, and would give him an answer in a week.
Before I managed to respond, I received a urgent call from Prof. Kantor. He apologized profusely and said that he had been told by the Israelis that government personnel would be present — people who would feel uncomfortable if I participated. He was instructed to rescind the invitation, which he was doing.
It took several email requests before Dr. Shapira agreed to provide an explanation. All she said, though, was that Prof. Kantor had “exceeded his authority in extending the invitation without full consultation with the conference organizers.”
Obviously, this doesn’t answer any of the questions that come to mind given what the American co-organizer had told me. Dr. Shapira also used rather peculiar language to describe the relationship between the two co-organizers of a purported academic meeting.
I was pretty amazed by this whole thing.
Not so much by the fact that Israeli government personnel would not want me to be present at a terrorism-related meeting. Not even so much by the fact that an Israeli researcher would accept governmental influence on academics. But by the fact that they would be so brazen as to state precisely what their reasoning was to an American outsider at a time when a boycott of Israeli academics was being fought, and that the American professor would agree to go along!
I asked Prof. Kantor how he would have reacted if American officials demanded that he not invite critics of US policy. He responded with mealy mouth excuses for the Israelis. For them these are “life and death issues”, you see. So it’s different.
I decided to try to interest others in writing about what had happened to me. Easier said than done!
Personally or through friends and colleagues I contacted several journalists, the National Association of Scholars, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. The only ones who would write about this were a small German paper and the major Israeli daily Ha’aretz. Akiva Eldar wrote a piece in Ha’aretz in which he complained that BGU would not respond publicly to such a serious accusation of using “a scientist’s political opinions [to] disqualify him from entering their gates”. (By then all questions about this matter were being directed to BGU’s public relations office who were simply denying that there was anything political about the withdrawal of my invitation, but providing no further explanation.)
My interactions with the Chronicle of Higher Education and the National Association of Scholars were most illuminating.
I was informed that the Chronicle assigned the story to Danna Harman, their reporter in Israel. After not hearing anything from her for a while, I obtained her phone number and called her up. She said that when she contacted BGU’s PR people they stated that the decision was “absolutely not political”. Hearing that and using her “knowledge of Israeli society” Ms. Harman decided that there was no story and did not see a need to contact me. What do you think I should do?, she asked, as though I were a veteran reporter. Why don’t you try talking to Prof. Kantor?, I suggested. As far as I know he isn’t denying any of this. Ms. Harman said she would think about it some more and would get back to me. Which she did, a few days later, to tell me that she “decided, together with [her] editor, to focus on other stories right now”.
The National Association of Scholars is a group that I was told was very concerned with issues of academic freedom and politics influencing research. This should be a slam dunk, I thought. The matter was assigned to their Communications Director, Vicky Cangelosi. After a few days she wrote to say that she had discussed this with the president of the association, Stephen Balch, and they concluded that since “[their] sphere of influence is with American universities, and as this incident involves the Israeli government and NATO, there is not much [they] can do.” Fair enough. I understand that small organizations must concentrate their efforts where they can make the most difference. Except for one thing. Their website at the time featured a statement by their president, Stephen Balch, excoriating NATFHE for its proposed boycott of Israeli academics and universities. Does that boycott not involve foreign entities? I wrote Ms. Cangelosi and inquired about this apparent contradiction. No response.
And this is where the matter rests. The workshop itself will be held in a few weeks, on June 4-5, 2007. I won’t be there. Other than pro-Palestinian groups, the only ones who considered this story print-worthy were an Israeli reporter and his editors.
At the same time, however, Israeli academics and officials are running around condemning others who would mix politics and science by proposing to boycott Israeli universities.
The workshop in question is titled “Security Informatics and Terrorism-Patrolling the Web”. Information about it, including a partial list of participants can be found at:
(Quite a large presence of MEMRI people, if you’re familiar with that group)
An English translation of the Ha’aretz item can be found at:
It’s the third item in Akiva Eldar’s column.