Latest update: February 5th, 2014
Of all the surprising opponents of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions by the American Studies Association, perhaps the most surprising is one that has not yet received any attention.
A small but official organization of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) came out with an unabashedly strong criticism of the ASA boycott in one of the very first waves of condemnations.
And, unlike most of the university presidents’ condemnations, this one aimed its spear directly at, and through, the double standard towards the Jewish State, otherwise known as anti-Semitism, that really is the foundation upon which the boycott movement in general, and the ASA’s boycott in particular, rests.
The statement comes from the Board of Trustees of the American Unit of the International Network of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics, also known as the American Bioethics Culture Institute.
This diverse board was created three years ago. Its purpose is “to explore and develop materials based upon an understanding of the psychology of clinical and ethical decision making under conditions of uncertainty when there is great moral and personal hazard.”
The statement was issued on Dec. 27, immediately after the ASA stated its boycott intentions.
These ethical pillars did not softly and safely mumble a mere no-vote. The statement expresses the views of the group directly, succinctly and without artifice, starting with being “appalled” by the boycott as “contrary to the fundamental principles of academic freedom.” It continues:
In many of Israel’s academies, Israeli and Palestinian students of all ages continue to learn and study together. Rather than promoting peace, the ASA’s action promotes further isolation for all peoples in the region and negates the importance and vitality of academic discourse. Their action is to be condemned by all those advocating for stabilization and peace in the Middle East. While ASA may make the misleading claim that its actions are an exercise of academic freedom, in singling out Israeli academics for such a boycott, our Unit’s work indicated that this immoral boycott, though not intended, is far more akin to actions of prominent Nazi academics in the early 1930’s, such as those German physicians who took leadership positions in the Nazi party and singled out their Jewish colleagues for boycott and expulsion from academic life and professional societies.
There are critics who will reflexively leap to a particularly noxious standard response to defending Israel. That position dismissively claims that all criticism of Israel elicits a reference either to anti-Semitism or to the Holocaust. Its ridicule is meant to silence all such references, even when the comparison is apt.
How much more apt is the case here, where the authors of the statement are experts on bioethics in general, whose focus is making sure that marginalized groups are not subject to discrimination, whether in genetics or in academia.
One of the ABCI board members, Dr. Omar Sultan Haque, is the lead author of an academic analysis of why such a large percentage of German physicians entered the Nazi party.
Haque, a medical ethicist, physician and psychologist at Brown University Medical Center, is also on staff at Harvard Medical School. Haque, in responding to a query from The Jewish Press, said that “drawing an analogy between American academics and the German physicians is not too much of a stretch, as both suggest deep anti-Semitism.” He also believes it appropriate to apply a term to today’s academics that was coined by his colleague, Dr. Harold Bursztajn.
The term Bursztajn coined is “ethicogenesis,” and it means “the ability of human beings to rationalize even the most unethical behavior in the name of ‘ethics.'”
Bursztajn is the co-director of ABCI. He is a faculty member of Harvard Medical School and is the co-founder of the program on Law and Psychiatry at the School. A remarkably accomplished man, Bursztajn is closer to the issue of the Shoah than are his colleagues, because both his parents were resistance fighters in the Lodz Ghetto during World War II.
“An academic boycott is completely contrary to the field of bioethics,” Bursztajn told The Jewish Press, during a lengthy interview on Monday, Feb. 3.
“We in the field of academia must engage in dialogue, not boycott. Just as in our field we must safeguard against allowing genetics to become eugenics, the same must hold true for all academics.”
“The Board felt strongly about opposing the academic boycott due to our collective belief that it would be counter-productive to both general academic freedom as well as the very social justice concerns expressed by the ASA,” another member of the board, law professor Michael A. Stein, told The Jewish Press. Stein is at Harvard Law School this semester and is the co-founder and director of the Harvard Project on Disability.
“Specifically, the ASA will wind up undercutting many progressive members of Israeli society, both Jewish and Arab, who are working towards a more inclusive Israel,” Stein explained.
It is Bursztajn’s belief that academic boycotts are a step on the slippery slope to academic fascism. “We must recognize that complexity brings with it uncertainty, but it is not helpful either to the peace process or the human process” to shut out the views of anyone.
Bursztajn said that the ABCI board of directors began circulating emails about the ASA boycott as soon as it became public, and they drafted the language of their response. The other members of the board are Dr. André L. Churchwell, Senior Associate Dean for Diversity Affairs at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, and Dr. Terry R. Bard, of Harvard Medical School, a professor, a rabbi, an ethicist and a clinical psychologist who has served on the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry for more than 35 years.
“As an African-American, I am less than a generation past the initial challenges of the Civil Rights movement, and I remain a witness to the continuing challenges of prejudice in all its forms. As the result of my background, I have a personal connection to the issue of the ASA boycott,” Dr. Churchwell explained.
“Academic freedom is precious and in some sense quite fragile. To recommend boycotting Israeli academic institutions opens the door to the possible slippery slope of other boycotts done in this manner. Academic freedom must be protected and nurtured by all who work in the realm of the academy,” was Churchwell’s heartfelt response to The Jewish Press.
Rabbi Dr. Bard, co-founder with Bursztajn of ABCI, explained that the ABCI concentrates in looking at the psychological components of decision making with respect to three primary areas: geriatrics, genetics and more generalized suffering.
Bard told The Jewish Press that in looking at the recent waves of American faculty selectively condemning Israel, one factor playing a role was Israel’s public presentation as a “Kol Bo,” a vessel that will contain everything. This insight refuses to simply cast those critical of Israel as anti-Semitic, instead adding a dimension of disappointment, whether justified or not. It is the kind of insight that makes the analysis even more complicated, driving away from, rather than closer to, a simple conclusion.
This article was updated to correct a quote from Dr. Haque. He said it was not too much of a stretch to draw an analogy between German physicians who rushed to join the Nazi party and today’s academics who promote boycotts of Israeli academics. The earlier version omitted the word “not.”
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools. You can reach her by email: Lori@JewishPressOnline.com
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