Menahem Ben-Sasson has been president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem since 2009 after having served for four years in the Knesset, where he chaired its Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. A historian of the heritage of Oriental Jewry, he has written some 40 books and scholarly articles on a range of subjects, including Jewish communities in Muslim lands, the relationship between religion and economics and law and spirituality as sources of authority in Medieval Oriental Society. The Jewish Week caught up with him last week in the wake of the vote by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli universities.
Q: In the last week, three academic groups in the U.S. have called for the boycotting of Israeli universities. What is your reaction?
A: Let’s make it clear. I am against any boycotts [against] academics even if they originate from an individual or an organization or an NGO or a university. Such a boycott is different than any other.
What makes it different?
Academic work is based on international contacts between people not connected by borders, race, ethnic, religion or political views. Science is the sole and ultimate truth that people seek, and in order to reach it they have one criteria — is it true or not. An [academic] body will harm itself if it closes its gates to new ideas and updated work and bars others from having the most up-to-date material.
We have to take academics and scientific work completely out of politics. Academics are the future in understanding the world and in solving global problems — climate or health or biological. You don’t want to be blocked from that. I am very clear in rejecting and opposing and fighting against any such expression or action.
Many of Israel’s advances in science have come from work done at the Hebrew University.
That is the secret of the success of the Hebrew University. We are monitored and examined and checked every day. You have a publication made by the American Friends of the Hebrew University in which you can see and count our achievements — from the prestigious Israel Prizes and the Wolf Prizes to European research grants and Nobel Prizes. China no doubt wants contact with the Hebrew University because our scientists talk the same language.
Have you had many international exchanges?
We have partnerships with universities all over the world, and in a new initiative, we are offering free open courses on the Internet. In the first such course, 42,000 participants signed up for the course — people from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan — all over the world. Now we are offering a course on the history of mankind and 65,000 people have enrolled. The whole world participates on the stage of good academics.
So why the need to fight these calls for a boycott?
This is a weapon that should be rejected and deleted from the vocabulary of academic institutions. I speak as president of Hebrew University and, as the current chairman of the Association of University Heads in Israel, I speak also in behalf of them.
The academic groups calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions — the American Studies Association, the Association of Asian American Studies, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association — are small in number and say they are doing so in behalf of Palestinians who are denied their rights because of the “occupation.”
From time to time marginal groups become the main group. … We reject it and have made very clear our opinion. We invited the British ambassador to our meeting of the presidents of Israeli universities and he declared his rejection of this activity.
There are some academics in England who have called for a boycott of Israeli universities. What has been the impact?
I don’t know of any people who are participating. I do not know of any impact, but it gives me an opportunity to draw attention and criticize it in a clear way.