NEW YORK, Feb. 9 (JTA) Acceding to pressure from funders, an American association of professors has indefinitely postponed a conference on academic boycotts whose balance and credibility had come under doubt. After an initial decision to press on, the American Association of University Professors announced late Wednesday that it was delaying the conference, originally scheduled for next week in Italy, after taking heat for inviting a number of professors who have in the past supported boycotts of Israeli academics. The controversy over the conference represents the latest battle over Israel and Israel boycotts in academia, where Jewish groups have long charged there is an anti-Zionist and anti-Israel bias.
Questions about the conference intensified earlier this week after an article by a Holocaust denier was distributed in a pre-conference packet an error the AAUP’s general-secretary told JTA had left the organization “shamefaced.”
“All three of our funders the Ford, Rockefeller and Nathan Cummings foundations urged us to postpone it, let the air clear, as it were regroup,” Roger Bowen said.
He said the foundations never threatened to pull funding, adding that he still hoped to hold the conference eventually.
Of 21 academics accepting invitations to the conference, about eight had previously supported academic boycotts of Israel, those with knowledge of the conference’s guest list say.
The decision to postpone was praised by Jewish groups and by the funders.
“We agree with the AAUP decision to postpone the conference,” the Rockefeller Foundation said in a statement e-mailed to JTA. “It is clear that concerns raised, including those of the original funders, the Ford and Cummings Foundations, demonstrate that the meeting would not be able to serve its original goals.”
When the AAUP initially put together the conference, the group was planning to battle-test its position opposing academic boycotts boycotts that often focus on Israel. Its leaders didn’t realize that they’d shortly be fighting for the meeting’s life.
That’s because when the list of attendees was released, some in the Jewish world noticed that some of the attendees supported boycotts of Israeli academics. They raised questions about the validity and make-up of the conference, but because of limits on space and time, the list could not be changed.
“At some point, I received an e-mail and saw that there were eight or nine names that looked familiar and I checked them and they were in favor of boycotting Israel,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a professor of political science at Bar-Illan University who was scheduled to attend the conference.
“I couldn’t understand why you needed eight or nine people whose sole aim in life was to demonize and delegitimize Israel and for whom academic freedom is a secondary concern.”
Then things got worse for the AAUP.
Earlier this week, an article by a known Holocaust denier claiming that the Nazis did not intend to inflict mass violence on Jews when it took power was included in a pre-conference informational packet. Questions from both Jewish and non-Jewish participants about the credibility of the conference as a forum for honest intellectual exchange intensified.
On Tuesday, the conference’s funding foundations came out with calls to postpone proceedings. Initially, the AAUP resisted the calls.
“Only by engaging our critics in conversation and debate can we attempt to persuade them to consider another perspective,” Bowen said at the time.
But the following day the AAUP announced its decision to postpone the conference.
Bowen said inclusion of the Holocaust article “The Jewish Declaration of War on Nazi Germany: The Economic Boycott of 1933,” by M. Raphael Johnson was an “egregious error.” He suspects that it made its way into the packet when a staffer did a Google search on academic boycotts and simply printed up whatever he or she found without first reading it.
In April 2005, the Association of University Teachers in Great Britain voted to boycott two Israeli universities, Haifa and Bar-Ilan. Shortly thereafter, the AAUP issued a statement denouncing academic boycotts
as threats to academic freedom.
The conference in Italy was an effort “to subject that statement to an open airing among people we knew would not necessarily agree, but nonetheless we saw this as a teaching moment,” Bowen said. “Our long-term goal is to get the global scholarly community to condemn academic boycotts.”
Politically unbalanced conferences, panels and debates that ignore the mainstream point of view are routine in academia, said Daniel Pipes, founder and director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia think tank that runs the controversial Campus Watch, which reviews and critiques Middle East studies on American campuses.
The AAUP flap “shows again how the academy needs adult supervision,” Pipes said. “There need to be checks from the outside world. They’re off on a left-wing tangent that at times goes overboard and gets noticed and rebuffed.”
Kenneth Stern, a specialist in anti-Semitism and extremism at the American Jewish Committee, said that while the AAUP’s intentions were good, its read of the political component of the conference may have been lacking.
“There’s perhaps a naivete associated with this whole thing that they would get some others to change their minds,” said Stern, who has been following the AAUP issue. “But some of them see themselves as zealots first and academics second.”
Bowen didn’t disagree with this characterization, noting that, “It’s difficult to talk about academic boycotts divorced from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“We may be guilty of a kind of American liberalism here,” he said. “It also may be hubris on our part. But it doesn’t make a lot of difference if we’re right if a significant part of the academic world doesn’t agree.”