Israel remains under fire in academe

BY ROBERT A. COHN

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Menachem Kellner, professor of Jewish Thought at Haifa University who played a major role in reversing anti-Israel actions by academic unions in Great Britain, laments the fact that “it is no longer a given in certain academic and media circles that the State of Israel has a right to exist.” He adds, “to my shock, I now find that Israel’s right to exist is up for grabs.”

Kellner’s remarks were delivered to a special meeting of community organizational representatives convened last week by the Jewish Community Relations Council, held in the West Campus Building of Washington University. Kellner, a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis in l980, was in St. Louis to deliver the 2006 Adam Cherrick Lecture in Jewish Studies on the main campus earlier in the week. His topic in the annual lecture was “Must a Jew Believe Anything?” which explored the parameters of what can be considered “acceptable” Jewish beliefs.

Kellner’s topic to the JCRC gathering was focused on his frustrating but ultimately successful efforts to work for the reversal of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist actions taken by the British Academic Union. The union, which Kellner described as “a real trade union with teeth,” had adopted a resolution calling for a blanket boycott of all Israeli professors and scholars. Previously, at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technloogy (UMIST), Professor Mona Baker was cleared of wrongdoing for firing two Israelis from the boards of journals she edited. The university found that because the journals were independent, she had the right to sack the two Israeli professors.

Later, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), at a conference in Scarborough, Yorkshire, rejected a resolution calling for institutions of higher learning to sever academic links with Israel, but agreed that the AUT would affiliate with the Trade Union Friends of Palestine, an anti-Israeli academic group.

Kellner said the most recent anti-Israel efforts in British academe were spearheaded by Sue Blackwell, “who is relatively low on the academic totem pole, but who is an effective labor organizer who is also very pro-Palestinian. Last spring she brought a more sophisticated boycott resolution forward, which would have affected British relationships with Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities.”

Kellner said the issue had become complicated because of the strongly anti-Zionist views of one of his colleagues at the University of Haifa, Ilan Pappe, a tenured professor who has published harshly critical articles and a recent book.

“If you meet Professor Pappe, he comes across as a very sweet man, but he can only be described as a violent enemy of the State of Israel in his writings and statements.”

Kellner said that before the Iraq War, Pappe had e-mailed a warning that once the war started, Israel would engage in a massive ethnic cleansing in the Palestinian territories. “Not only was this logistically impossible, but was outrageously false,” Kellner said.

Kellner said that the anti-Israel resolutions sparked a backlash among the British academic trade unionists, “who felt their union had been hijacked. Even among reconstructed leftists who were strong critics of Israel within the AUT there was a strong negative backlash and a feeling that their movement had been hijacked.”

British attorney Anthony Julius, who had defended Deborah Lipstadt in her famous libel trial against the Holocaust denier David Irving, was enlisted to represent Haifa University to persuade the academic groups to reverse their anti-Israel resolutions. “Thanks to the efforts of Julius, who not only represented Lipstadt, but who was the late Princess Diana’s lawyer, the AUT rejected the boycott by a narrow majority,” Kellner said.

Even though the efforts of Kellner and Julius were ultimately successful, Kellner said “it was no cause to jump for joy. The reason these anti-Israel efforts and threats of boycott or divestment are so dangerous, is that there is so much at stake. Harvard University, for example, has $29 billion in endowments. There is a danger that some wealthy individual or nation could fund an academic chair with the proviso that it be run by anti-Israel academics. The efforts within mainstream Protestant church assemblies to support divestment from companies doing business with Israel, companies such as IBM, Microsoft and Caterpillar Tractor, could potentially cost Israel millions of dollars in commerce and trade.”

Kellner ended his remarks by sadly reflecting, “I am almost 60 years old now, and for the first 55 years of my life, I used to believe that rampant anti-Semitism was something from the past that my parents would talk about. These attacks on Israel and Zionism, along with more serious and direct anti-Semitic incidents have, to my regret, proved me wrong. Our work to combat this trend has only just begun.”

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