These people justify their activity by arguing that academic freedom grants them the right to undermine the economic stability of the institutions they draw their salaries from, while the State – which pays their salaries – must continue doing so even though they incite against it and threaten its very existence.
As academicians ourselves, we are in favor of academic freedom and have no problem in principle with a researcher who argues – in an academic convention or journal – that the State of Israel is an apartheid state, for example. After all, any decent convention or worthy journal would provide a proper platform for views that would easily refute such foolish claim while referring to highly significant differences between Israel and apartheid South Africa. The academic value of such claim would be the same as claiming that the earth is flat.
If a lecturer makes such claim in class, academic decency obligates him to present opposing views, and if he does not do so he’s supposed to be called to task by his superiors due to the intellectual shallowness he imparts to his students. Hence, the academic environment is capable of properly contending with such claim, as long as it maintains its decency and fairness, which are supposed to prevent other ethical deviations such as plagiarism or false accusations.
The problem starts when the event where such foolish claims are uttered is not academic, but rather political in nature (for example, the “Israel apartheid Week.”) It’s even graver when an Israeli academician urges the pension fund of Finnish miners (for example) to withdraw its investments from Israel and from his university while boycotting them and imposing sanctions on them.
This kind of activity is not academic, but rather, purely political. The moment an academician undertakes such acts he deviates from his field and operates as though he’s a political man. In the political arena, there is no significance to academic freedom, just like academic freedom does not grant anyone the right to drive on the wrong side of the road or park illegally, even on campus.
Rules needed urgently
Freedom is not unlimited: Freedom of speech does not include the right to yell out “fire” in the theater for no reason, while freedom of occupation, which grants any carpenter the right to drill holes, does not allow him to drill a hole in a ship carrying other passengers. Similarly, academic freedom is limited to academic activity and related areas and does not apply to political activity.
Academic freedom does not grant academicians the right to risk their colleagues’ place of employment, and should such academicians believe their university deserves to be boycotted, they should be honest with themselves and start the boycott themselves by resigning and shunning their salary and the research budget they received.
There is no reason that would require a State, just like any other organization, to fund and sponsor people who travel the world and call for boycotts and sanctions against it, as such people threaten the State’s legitimacy and thereby its existence as well.
An academician who exploits academic freedom for political activity necessarily pushes the institution he draws his salary from into a political position, even though he was not authorized by his employers and colleagues to do so. He therefore endangers their academic standing among global colleagues as well as their economic situation, as a decline in investments and donations as result of their actions would undermine the university’s resources.
Recently, 14 Tel Aviv University donors urged the education minister to intervene. These and other donors may withdraw their support should their public call remain unheeded. As academicians, we feel threatened by the non-academic political activity of some of our colleagues, who hence threaten our status in the global academic community, the institutions we’re members of, Israeli academic in general, and the whole State of Israel.
The education minister, who is in charge of university budgets, must urgently form a committee that would set ethical rules for non-academic activity in order to protect academic freedom against misuse, and to protect higher education institutions from economic and scientific collapse – this, as result of the reckless activity of people who turned themselves into politicians in an academic guise.
Dr. Mordechai Kedar and Professor Eli Pollak are members of Israel Academic Monitor