Friday, October 30, 2015

Academic Freedom Opposed by "Who"?

It is that time of year again. News arrives of 343 "university teachers" who signed a letter pledging that henceforth they will not cooperate with Israeli academic institutions. Their joint letter took up a full page today in Britain's left-wing Guardian newspaper (where else?) and has caused almost no stir in Britain. It comes days after a letter signed by 150 leading British writers, musicians and others -- including JK Rowling, Simon Schama and Hilary Mantel -- opposed any and all such boycotts against Israel, and pointed out that in the eyes of most people, intellectual and cultural exchange is a good thing.
The anti-boycott letter was signed by some of Britain's leading intellectuals. The main response to the pro-boycott letter, however, may well be, "Who?" Who knew, for instance, that Israel -- or any state -- would be diminished if it could not gain from the wisdom of Professor Alex Callinicos, one of Britain's most obscure Marxist academics? He is the author of numerous interminable tracts; his efforts to bring his thoughts into mainstream politics reached their summit during his involvement with the Socialist Worker's Party, an entity too extreme even for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party. As almost nobody in Britain wants Prof. Callinicos's thoughts, why would anybody in Israel be begging for them?
Or consider another figure on the letter, one Professor Jane Hardy who teaches at the University of Hertfordshire. It would come as a great surprise to most people in Britain -- and possibly to many people in Hertfordshire -- that such an institution exists. But a quick internet search reveals that it does, and that until 1992 it was known as "Hatfield Polytechnic." So what are the students in Israel unilaterally going to lose the right to know, thanks to the stance taken by Professor Hardy? Well, her own profile page says, "My research and publications on regional development, and the gender and class impacts of change have been underpinned by a concern with the lives of ordinary people and how they have contested neoliberalism." One tries to be polite, of course, but it is worth pointing out that this kind of "study" has never been helpful in finding a place in the job-market for British students (apart, possibly, in furthering their studies in low-grade academia). Why the withdrawal of Prof. Hardy's research on regional development, gender and class in a Hertfordshire context should be such a loss to students in Israel, one is at a loss to guess.
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