When Columbia University President Lee Bollinger this week waded into the controversy over the threatened British academic boycott of Israeli universities, he put on the front burner an issue that had not caught fire here.
“Add Columbia to the boycott list,” Bollinger challenged the British academics, making him the first American college president to speak out on the issue.His comments energized two major Jewish organizations, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, both of which issued statements calling for other university and college presidents to follow Bollinger’s lead.
Bollinger, in an interview with The Jewish Week Tuesday, said he was at a loss to explain why he was the first to speak up against the threatened boycott.
“Maybe there is a sense that it is so shocking that it speaks for itself,” he said. “It may be that people think it will dissolve into nothing because it will be ultimately voted down by other people and so it will be a marginal event.”
“I really do not think there is any substantial sympathy with this way of expressing one’s political opposition to whatever government policies people disagree with,” he added. “But to my mind we are in a sense responsible for what fellow academic institutions do and call for in the world, and so it is important — and in this case I think quite important — to say what we think about it.”
In a vote May 30, Britain’s University and College Union, the country’s largest academic trade union, approved a resolution urging lecturers to “consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions” because of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. It set no date for a vote on the boycott issue. “This is so troublesome,” Bollinger told The Jewish Week. “I think it is so unrepresentative of what universities do and believe — but Columbia in particular — that it really calls for a very strong denunciation.”
In a two-paragraph statement he released Tuesday, Bollinger said that if Britain’s University and College Union “is intent on pursuing its deeply misguided policy, then it should add Columbia to its boycott list. … Boycott us, then, for we gladly stand together with our many colleagues … against such intellectually shoddy and politically biased attempts to hijack the central mission of higher education.”
The American Jewish Committee issued a statement applauding Bollinger and saying his remarks reflect a “deep understanding that this is a watershed moment for academic freedom which requires firm action.”
And Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, said Bollinger’s words were especially important because “people who are engaged in the boycott of Israel pretend to be open-minded academics and scholars. We hope they will respond more to expressions of outrage from their peers and their colleagues than they will from voices of the Jewish community.”
In a statement, Foxman said, “It is our hope that other university leaders around the United States and across the globe will join you in your statement and embrace these Israeli scholars and universities that the UCU has fairly sought to penalize.” Ken Stern, the American Jewish Committee’s director on anti-Semitism and extremism, said Bollinger’s statement did not come as a surprise because he had promised to speak out when he delivered the keynote address at an AJC conference in March.
“This is the way to deal with bigotry,” Stern said, recalling that during the Holocaust “the Danes said we are going to stand” with the Jews.
“Now that his statement is out, I have contacted a few other universities and let them know of it and encouraged them to follow suit,” he said. “We will contact Ivy League [schools], and I hope to be able to approach hundreds of college presidents. … I’m trying to see if there is a group of college presidents who may want to act in unison to encourage others.”
Andrew Marks, founder of the International Academic Friends of Israel, said Bollinger’s statement made him “very proud to be on the faculty of Columbia.”
“This is the third attempt in Britain to boycott Israeli academics and I think once and for all the strategy ought to be abandoned because it does not bring about peace in the Middle East and is distracting people from more important endeavors,” he said.
Although other university and college presidents have yet to speak out, David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, the coordinating body for the country’s higher education institutions, said he finds the British action “reprehensible.”In a letter late last week to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Ward wrote that his organization “has long supported academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas on campus, regardless of viewpoint. … It is my continued hope that this minority viewpoint [calling for a boycott] will be voted down by the organization’s broader membership, as has happened in the past.”
And the American Association of University Professors, which has a membership of 45,000 and is dedicated to defending academic freedom, adopted a motion at the June 1 meeting of its academic freedom and tenure committee saying that the boycott is “contrary to the association’s position condemning such boycotts.”
Bollinger’s comments come two years after he received an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary after weathering criticism that he waited too long to act and had failed to properly investigate Jewish students’ complaints that pro-Palestinian Columbia professors had intimidated them. There were allegations that the campus had become a hotbed of anti-Israel activism.
An investigative committee established by Bollinger to look into the charges eventually dismissed virtually all of the students’ complaints. Bollinger said in the interview, “If people start to get the idea that faculty and universities may agree [with the boycott] … that would be a tragedy because it would undermine our credibility and the principle of what we stand for. This is a moment to say that.”