Last week might have been a week when history was made. There would have been a precedent set that would from that point onwards made a change in very many ways, one comparable to fulfilling the request the ANC made in South Africa. At first, the ANC request was seen as merely symbolic, but the actual effectiveness was in the attention it brought to a situation of institutionalised racism, and thus, efforts made around the world to address this situation of severe human rights violations and change it by means of pressure.
The NTNU, a Norwegian University, was presented with the opportunity to vote on a motion that would ask the Board of Directors to consider making it a policy in their University to restrict academic or research partnerships with Israel. There are many who think that this kind of “politics” in “academic institutions” is unfitting, but there are others who have a different point of view, given the South African precedent and today’s unanimous opinion that it was vital towards bringing that country out of Apartheid.
Universities are not citadels in the sky, they are often corporations that are financed with a combination of private and public investments. They also have clients who pay for their services in the way of tuition, and some of these tuitions are in the hundreds of thousands of Dollars and Euros for a single cycle of “Education” that results in the granting of a Diploma, which at that point leads the owner of this title to have more access to employment possibilities. In other words, looking at facts and what’s at stake, it”s more about money than it is about smarts. Since they have profit as their purpose, they make decisions for their “investors” so that the balance sheet encourages further investment.
There are others who believe that since these institutions produce “Culture”, they have as their priority a level of standards that should be met so that the product is one of value. Culture is something that can be created autonomously, because it is part of human existence and present in every human activity, although it takes money to promote it and develop it further. Culture is ideas and ideals, it is the possibility to express a thought or sensation that can be shared with others. Culture at that point is quite powerful, and it has the power to create debate upon the quality of a product such as “education”, and if the quality may be enhanced by an establishment of a standard of recognition of the rights of others, including the rights of people under military occupation to academic freedom, this topic is ripe for discussion as to whether the institution should make a vocal stand and act upon a belief that pressure upon an apartheid regime must be fought from the bottom up, from a cultural level, with a common interest in promoting freedom.
The decision the board at NTNU was about to make actually never really hit the table, the motion was not even going to be voted upon. In fact, a motion was made to “throw out the motion” and this was unanimously accepted. There is your debate about “Academic Freedom”!
Why did the board vote to not even vote upon the motion? Why did they unanimously decide that this question should not be dealt with? The words are LOBBYING and PEER PRESSURE. Yes, they buckled under due to lobbying and pressure and probably wanted to protect all their esteemed colleagues from having a finger pointed at them. No motion, of course, no vote, and no one to have to express even a word of criticism about Israel, if any of them felt this might be fitting or worthy of expressing. Session closed and NTNU fades back into splendid oblivion.
I took a look at the rah rah site against Boycotts of Israel, Engage, located in the UK. Evidently, they were going to be very pleased that this precedent was not set, and claim it as a victory, (just as we would have claimed it as a victory if :1- the motion was debated, 2- the motion passed, and as a partial victory if there was dissent from a vote to reject the proposition of the motion.) You see, academic people sell one thing: their reputation, the opinion others have of them. This is how they earn their living, and they are all in the same boat. Perhaps no one wanted to put one of their colleagues on the spot, risking making a statement that would put this person on a side that would then be in some way spotlighted. Being conformist and non-controversial is considered as a guarantee that their institution can continue to bring in investments and make profit.
Now, let”s take a look at the Engage commentary on this. I am highlighting portions of the original, with my own comments in (red and parentheses).
Trondheim academic boycott motion thrown out
November 12, 2009 Mira Vogel
Some days ago I wondered whether a Norwegian university was going to force its employees to boycott Israelis. (This kind of rhetoric automatically creates the “controversy” and puts the spotlight on individuals. It sets the tone as if it is a gag order, as if it is a person-to-person demand. An academic boycott is about economic/research collaboration between institutions that determine the policy and the ways that their investments are going to be utilised. This is always expressed in terms of money and investment. If one invests in academic institutions that have economic-institutional partnerships with others that thrive due to a military occupation of another people and constrict those occupied to martial law due to their ethnic group/religion, then it is a valid issue whether this type of institution is welcome as a partner. Are the Israeli institutions outside the life of Israel, or do they operate in the same sphere? I don’t believe Israel is sensitive to pressure of this sort, but other places in the world are, and with the loss of income and partnerships, it could be an incentive to at least open debate on this issue in Israel, rather than wall themselves into moral victimhood. An institution outside Israel actually could and should be pressured to change and analyse the appropriateness of their investments, if they are tied in with organisations or entities that are not in conformance with the goals of the institutions and foundations themselves. It is not such a bizarre request, and the ethical component is present in most business decisions. A complete boycott would be ideal, but this is one step). The answer turned out to be a no from the board, none of whom objected to a proposal to throw out the motion. (The motion does not seem to have been discussed by those who had proposed it. A unanimous acceptance of a motion to reject a motion is not taking a position at all, it is an easy way out.)
Some of the people in attendance (who? Board members or members of the public?) spoke in favor of scrapping the vote, Alsberg told Haaretz. The main arguments raised were that Norwegian universities should not [make] their own foreign policies, and that a boycott would be harmful to NTNU. (While respecting the right of the Board to feel they cannot make certain decisions that will have international resonance, every university decides its policies within certain limits and selects with whom it collaborates. It often is influenced by foreign policies of the States they are located in, pretending the contrary is almost laughable).
According to Alsberg, who collected signatures from over 100 NTNU scholars against the boycott, the move was prevented due to a combination of factors. He said these included media attention; opposition to the boycott by the Norwegian Ministry for Higher Education; and petitions, including his own. (There it is… the fear of attention and pressure from others. This is certainly not doing any justice to individual or academic freedom).
But Erez Uriely, director of the Oslo-based Center against Anti-Semitism, said the boycott was prevented largely thanks to Alsbergs petition. (Why the “but”… they admit that the decisive factor was the list of names of the esteemed colleagues of the Board. They want to all be able to go out for dinner together after all! And here was one of the worries written on the petition: “To be associated with a controversial opinion in a difficult conflict will have negative consequences for NTNU. It”s a violation at an international level. Do we really want to be known as the first Western University that is in favour of an academic boycott against Israel?”)
Norwegian politicians often take anti-Israeli positions and then renege when this creates an outcry, he said. The petition against a boycott of Israel at NTNU is an unusual event which tipped the scale.
Norway, Israel and the Jews note the disappointment of boycotters and predicts that they will return:
For anyone in doubt, please observe that Mr.Lysestl and his comrades are dedicated, hard working people who honestly believe they are engaged in a battle against ultimate evil. They will regroup and recover. If it had not been for the tremendous effort of people from around the globe in general and professor Bjrn Alsgaard* at NTNU in particular, the motion for boycott might have passed. (And here we have a lesson for all of us. If we want to influence people with power, they listen to the pressure of other people who will judge them on a personal level and who do not want to assume responsibility of having attention drawn to them, as well as the insinuation in the petition that there was going to be some financial difficulties if they stepped out of line, things like losing jobs too. Hardly a realistic threat, but for a group voting on something for economic reasons, this will have its impact. They will avoid discussing an issue rather than disappoint the expectations of someone or be accused of being ineffective financially. The considerations to make are: it”s either hopeless because you simply cannot fight something where what matters is being able to avoid discussion of an issue rather than addressing a motion presented and then voting on it. The reasons for this priority have little to do with the institution itself, I believe, but something more down to earth such as being able to share a cigar at the birth of a grandson, getting a positive review of a book published or being invited to speak at a convention in an exotic site. Should academic institutions be considered as particularly effective starting places? I don’t think so. Or – perhaps we have to concentrate our efforts towards MORE pressure and requiring people to actually face issues rather than avoid them.)
Kudos to the academics at Trondheim who spoke out against the boycott by signing Bjrn Alsbergs* petition. (Thus closes the article, remember these names. We also remember the names of those who signed Mohamad Khodr”s petition, and we thank all of them for caring and trying. We won”t give up.)
Mary Rizzo is an art restorer, translator and writer living in Italy. Editor and co-founder of Palestine Think Tank, co-founder of Tlaxcala translations collective. Her personal blog is Peacepalestine.