Atlanta Jewish Times
A union of British academics tried to boycott Israeli institutions but it backfired and ended in humiliation for them.
In May, the University and College Union (UCU) of Britain voted to boycott Israeli institutions of higher learning, a violation of the basic principles of higher education and intellectual inquiry. On Sept. 28, the same union's strategy and finance committee called it off on the grounds that "a boycott call would be unlawful and cannot be implemented." This humiliating reversal ends the infamous boycott.
We ought to thank the UCU for a great gift to Israel's cause. Because in just the four months or so between the boycott and its abandonment, it caused an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy for Israel's boycotted academies from America's university and college presidents.
In a full-page ad created by Lee Bollinger of Columbia University, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and published in The New York Times on Aug. 8, 286 leaders of U.S. academic institutions signed a strongly worded petition against the boycott. It read in bold letters: "Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours Too!"
By Sept. 25, 160 more institutional leaders had signed on, for an astounding total of 446.
Some people seem to be under the misconception that the ad proposed a counterboycott. It did nothing of the kind. It dramatically invited the UCU to put the signatory institutions in the same category as the UCU sought for the Israeli academic world.
The 446 university and college presidents who signed the petition included the majority of presidents of the top 20, 30 and 50 national universities, according to U.S. News & World Report, the majority of the top 20, 30 and 50 liberal arts colleges, and all four named "top public universities."
In Georgia, we can be proud: The ad was signed by the presidents of the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Oglethorpe, Agnes Scott, Kennesaw State, Spelman, the University of West Georgia, and Augusta State.
That did leave out Emory, my institution. None of the signatory Georgia institutions can match Emory for its Jewish population of students, alumni and potential donors. Yet all Emory President James Wagner saw fit to do was to write a letter saying academic boycotts are not in the spirit of university inquiry.
That is a weak message. A far stronger message was sent by his refusal to sign the petition. It is an irreversible embarrassment.
In the South, the petition was signed by the presidents of Vanderbilt, Clemson, Furman, Washington University of St. Louis, Tulane, Louisiana State, Florida State, the University of Miami, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, and the Universities of Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisville, among others.
Elsewhere, it was signed by the presidents of Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Cal Tech, MIT, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Cornell, the four top branches of the University of California, the Universities of Texas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Massachusetts, numerous Christian colleges and seminaries, and hundreds more.
Some good universities and colleges are not represented, but they are a minority in all categories, and in Georgia, except for Emory, we have just about a clean sweep.
An estimated one-third of Emory's student body is Jewish, and therefore a third of alumni and of potential donors to Emory soon will be. Most of the institutions named above cannot say the same, yet they wanted to say not just the obvious – "Boycotts aren't nice" – but the bold and symbolically powerful – "Boycott ours too!" They stood on principle. Emory missed its chance.
The boycott galvanized the leaders of American higher education and showed the world how strongly they felt. Academic freedom, Israel and the Jewish community have all scored an important victory.