Three dissenting academics were barred from participating in a two-day conference dealing with academic boycotts of Israel held in Dublin's Trinity College this week.
The conference, titled "Freedom of speech and higher education: the case of the academic boycott of Israel," features lectures on such topics as "Neoliberalism, the colonial university, and Palestinian liberation," "Perspectives on academic boycott of Israel in Poland" and others.
The conference's organizers, some of them prominent figures in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, all support the academic boycotting of Israel and its institutions.
One of the conference's keynote speakers is Dr. Steven Salaita, who has had harsh words for Israel in the past, going so far as to tweet "The Israeli flag is a horrifying symbol of aggression and oppression", "I wish all West Bank settlers would disappear" and "If you're defending Israel right now, you're an awful human being." Following these remarks, Salaita was dismissed from his University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign position.
News of the conference recently reached Israel's Association of University Heads, and they called on researchers to send in lecture abstracts to the conference, requesting to speak there and counter the claim of those supporting a boycott of Israel.
Two Israeli researchers and a senior researcher from the United Kingdom, who has written about the academic boycott in the past, heeded the call and sent in their abstracts to the organizers. They were all summarily rejected without any explanation, said the Association of University Heads.
In response to the conference and the rejection of the proposed speakers, chairman of the Association of University Heads and the President of Tel Aviv University Prof. Joseph Klafter sent a strongly-worded letter to the president of Trinity College, demanding his college clarify the rules and principles of a worthy academic institution.
"Conferences are an integral and inseparable part of academic life and are the space where different, sometimes even polarized, opinions may be expressed. They are a time for an exchange of ideas brought on by meaningful discussions leading to a better understanding of the issues in question," wrote Klafter.
"If only the conference organizers followed regular protocol allowing expressing both sides of the issue, this event would have been a welcome addition to public discourse. Unfortunately, in this instance a great wrong was committed against the academic community and freedom of speech at the university you head. We expect Trinity College to see fit to reclarify the rules and principles conference organizers should adhere to, and ensure no discrimination takes place and a wide range of opinions are allowed to be expressed in order to continue being a proper society maintaining a free public discourse," the missive concluded.
"It's important for us at the Association of University Heads to contact university heads and members of academia in the world (and ask them) to join those combating academic boycotts and preventing any activities whose sole purpose is to promote (such a boycott)," Prof. Klafter told Ynet. "Research, the pursuit of knowledge and its creation are a way of widening horizons and breaking barriers, and not exclusion and putting up barriers."
"It's completely obvious there is a systematic attempt to remove anyone objecting to the academic boycott of Israel from the conference. Most of its speakers are staunch supporters of BDS," said Prof. Michael Yudkin, a senior fellow at Oxford University whose abstract was rejected by the conference.
"Moreover, the abstracts and articles submitted to the conference and protesting the academic boycott were summarily rejected. This is nothing more than a political assembly in the pretext of an academic conference. It's within our power to expose this conference as the clear attempt at subverting opinion and academic openness, so in the future universities are not fooled by BDS supporters' tactics," Yudkin added.
"We came to the realization the conference organizers were unwilling to confront positions going against their outlook on the legitimacy of an academic boycott and are not willing to allow the expression of differing opinions and the showing of academic openness," said Prof. Zvi Ziegler, head of the inter-university forum to counter academic boycotts against Israel—created by the Association of University Heads.
"A conference where such cherry-picking takes place, preventing discussions between researchers of varied positions, isn't worthy of being called an academic conference. Our guiding principle in combating the boycott—a struggle involving important international organizations—is that researchers must not be discriminated against on the basis of religion, race, gender, nationality, ethnicity or political stance," Ziegler said.
About six months ago, a talk by Israel's ambassador to Ireland at the very same college was canceled after students blocked the entrance to the hall where it was supposed to take place and sang anti-Israeli songs.