Thursday, November 12, 2009 | by Susan Wolfe
Calls to boycott Israeli academics, divest from companies doing business in Israel, and impose economic sanctions against Israel are the latest tricks of the anti-Israel trade that have taken hold on college campuses the world over.
In the United Kingdom, Britain’s University and College Union has debated four times in the last four years whether to impose a boycott to prevent Israeli scholars from participating in conferences, research efforts and other academic endeavors with their peers from around the world. Thus far, the effort has not succeeded, yet year after year it appears on the agenda.
Each spring at U.C. Irvine, the Muslim Student Union stages a weeklong series of anti-Israel events. Calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions are routine. Affronts have become so offensive that earlier this year the Orange County Independent Task Force on Anti-Semitism on Campus issued this startling recommendation: “Students with a strong Jewish identity should consider enrolling elsewhere unless and until tangible changes are made.”
The report concluded that anti-Semitism is thriving at U.C. Irvine because “the chancellor has failed to exercise his moral authority as an educator and leader by abrogating his leadership responsibilities.”
A few weeks ago, the Bay Area Jewish community learned that a student group at San Francisco State University planned to host Omar Barghouti, founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, for a Nov. 3 lecture. In a bold demonstration of leadership, S.F. State President Robert Corrigan did not stand idly by.
Corrigan listened carefully to a diverse coalition of Jewish community organizations. He met with faculty and with Koret Foundation President Tad Taube, who was concerned about the anti-Israel speech anticipated on campus. Taube urged Corrigan to share his proposed statement on the matter with the Jewish community.
“It is not unusual for a speaker, faculty member or student group to make statements with which others disagree, and we have seen our fair share of divisive speakers advocating a host of perspectives,” Corrigan wrote in a statement issued last week. “The University emphatically supports and endorses the rights of all speakers — but not necessarily their words.
“While it is rare for me to comment on any specific speaker or perspective advocated in a speech on campus, I am told that a Nov. 3 event sponsored by students called for an academic and cultural boycott of one nation, Israel,” Corrigan went on. “Such a campaign to limit others’ speech and rein in the free exchange of ideas runs counter to all that S.F. State stands for, and I must therefore share my concerns.”
Corrigan’s leadership demonstrates his understanding that with rights come responsibilities. The rights to free speech and academic freedom guaranteed by the Constitution and celebrated on college campuses must include the responsibility to condemn those views that are inflammatory, damning and hateful.
Just as student groups may exercise their right to free speech by sponsoring a controversial speaker, university officials must assert their free speech responsibility by publicly criticizing messages and messengers that offend. Criticism is not censorship. Leadership requires courage; Corrigan demonstrated both in addressing the issues related to free speech, hate speech and academic freedom.
By addressing the issue head-on, Corrigan sends a strong signal. Corrigan calls academic boycotts “deeply wrong — and deeply dangerous.”
“An academic boycott is a wrongheaded tactic that diminishes any institution that would pursue it,” Corrigan wrote. “It is antithetical to this University’s values of inclusion and mutual respect … An academic boycott is anathema to such civil discourse.”
Marc Dollinger, who holds the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at S.F. State, is proud of his institution’s president.
“With an administration willing to speak publicly and honestly about the issues, there is no sweeping anything under the rug,” he said.
Susan Wolfe is director of grantmaking programs and communications at the S.F.-based Koret Foundation.
Note: The OC independent Task Force on anti-Semitism released its report and recommendations on February 12, 2008. OCITF