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Nonsensical boycott uproar November 13, 2009

Posted by Sverre in : Academic matters, Human rights, Norwegian politics , trackback

My university, The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), has been the centre of an international controversy blown ridiculously out of proportion for the last few weeks. It peaked today with a university board meeting actually attended by reporters from Al-Jazeera(!). I assure you not a common occurence in a Norwegian university.

It all started with a petition by thirty-four academic staff members from NTNU and the regional college HiST recommending an academic and cultural boycot of Israel and Israeli universities. Interestingly enough, at least two of the petitioners have jewish backgrounds themselves. Although I am sympathetic to the cause, I think the idea of academic and cultural isolation is more likely to be counterproductive to the larger goal of improving conditions for Palestinians. My opinion is however beside the matter. For reference, the total number of academic staff at NTNU is about 2700, of which 34 doesn’t seem like an alarming number. This also mobilized a counter-petition by other members of the staff.

Next, three professors at NTNU organized a seminar series about the Israel-Palestine conflict with the endorsement of the university Rector Trond Digernes. They invited international speakers like Stephen Walt, Moshe Zuckermann and Illian Pape in addittion to various Norwegian speakers. They instantly came under attack by “friends of Israel” that critizised them for a biased selection of speakers, accusing them of being inspired by hatred of Israel and jews.

This was eventually picked up by Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. That’s when the ball really started rolling. The usual freak anonymous hate-calls and blog flaming is to be expected. But After the Ha’aretz article, NTNU actually received an official letter from the Israeli ambassador accusing NTNU of “Israel-bashing”. For diplomats to interfere with university seminars, especially with such language, seems rather unusual to me.

Today was the big day when the board was to decide on the issue of the boycott. The Rector had recommended against it, the Minister of Education had warned that it was probably in violation of the law-protected academic freedom, and the board voted unanimously against boycott. The rector didn’t even want to put the proposal on the agenda, but board members felt that it had to be given due consideration. They gave it so and rejected it. As everybody expected to. In the meantime, Israel-supporters have whipped up a frenzy calling NTNU and Norway all manner of bad things. This non-issue of 34 academics forwarding a political opinion with no substantial support was blown completely out of proportion. And it was all topped by the most ridiculous article by Haaretz today.

I don’t think Haaretz was actually there to see the meeting, and their intelligence in general is horrendously bad.

First: They cite Professor Alsberg of NTNU as a board member. He is a professor, but he is not a member of the board. Secondly, they claim the issue was scrapped from the agenda. It was not. It was opened for debate and rejected.

But most importantly: Alsberg claims that the boycott was prevented due to media attention and outside pressure. The leader of the Anti-Semitism center in Oslo even claims it was all due to Alsberg and his counter-petition. They are both very wrong. As a former board member of NTNU myself, I would have been shocked if this proposal went through even if it had been done in secrecy. Trust me when I say that getting a majority of the votes on the board was never even close to being a reality. I know the students were against it. The chairwoman of the board has clearly said she was against. The rector recommended to the board it was dropped, and from what I know of the other members, I doubt more than a couple of them seriously considered voting in favour. Outside pressure was perfectly superfluous.

This was a political expression by 34 out of 2700 academic staff. Nothing more. Although a majority probably supports taking a stand against Israeli human rights offences, there is no substantial support for a boycott. The “friends of Israel” have however once again done a good job of alienating even more of those interested in working for true dialogue.

I recommend the words of Professor Ann Rudinow Sætnan, one of the original petitioners, a Jew herself  and certainly no anti-semite, to learn how far from the truth this media hyped image of NTNU and the general sentiments of Norwegians towards Israel is from the truth:

There are many categories of people being discriminated against, some even to the ultimate point of mass killings. At the moment, Jews are not among them. At the moment I belong only to privileged categories. But if I “tolerate so complacently” the outrages being perpetrated against others, then sooner or later I will find myself assigned to some category singled out for similar treatment. That is the lesson I take from the Holocaust, and that is why I cannot stand by silently as Israel bombs Gaza to pieces, or for that matter starves Gaza slowly. Nor can I accept that my standpoint is anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist or even anti-Israeli. I am critical of current Israeli policies, yes. In my view, those policies will prove suicidal. In my view, it would be better for Israel, for the Zionist vision, and for Jews (remembering here that I do NOT equate these three!) if Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza, pull out the settlements or leave them to their own devices, and work on developing good neighborly relations with a viable Palestinian state.


1. LFC - December 29, 2009

I wasn’t aware of this whole story (although evidently it got quite a lot of media attention); thanks for the summary and links.