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The Silence of the Dons?
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy - Dr Martin Luther King, Jr

12 July   |   2002   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

A veritable furore has seized the collective imagination of a cross-section of the intellectual and academic communities in Britain this week. The controversy is over the recent sacking of two Israeli academics from their advisory posts on two translation journals. In a nutshell, the ‘story’ found its way into various media channels when an Egyptian-born professor of translation studies at a university in Manchester and owner of those periodicals fired the two scholars. Her action provoked a round of debates, and she was accused of ‘shameful intolerance’ at a time when academic circles are meant to be dedicated to free speech and the undeterred exchange of views.

The two sackings also followed another argument that has strongly divided many political and intellectual circles in the country. Last April, in the backwash of global indignation at PM Ariel Sharon’s brutal assault on the Palestinian infrastructure and territory, a petition was launched urging the boycott of research and cultural links with Israel. This worldwide boycott is growing today and consists of a pledge to sever contact with Israeli scientific institutions, universities, tutors, conferences and funding programmes. To date, twenty-two British academics and many hundreds more across the world have signed this document. They include prominent and high profile personalities such as Professor Nicholas Humphrey who is an internationally renowned theoretical psychologist at the London School of Economics and Dr Yvonne Buckley who is a biological scientist at Imperial College.

The pledge reads, ‘I can no longer in good conscience continue to co-operate with official Israeli institutions, including universities, or in the decision of Israeli funding agencies’. One rationale behind this pledge is that it conveys a clear Eurocentric message to Israel through its educational establishments that it must rein in its aggression against Palestinians. This undertaking by men and women of conscience is not anti-Semitic in any sense since people are free to voice their protest of the Israeli military incursions into Palestinian territories. However, the withdrawal of co-operation with Israeli academics - who are by and large liberal in their political views - risks becoming a counter-productive measure. Intellectual communities worldwide are in the business of fostering international understanding and co-operation rather than penalising each other for the shortcomings of their governments. Might it perhaps not be more beneficial for Israelis and Palestinians alike if the emphasis were placed more acutely on the boycott of products Israel sells from the settlements built on Palestinian land? Might it also not be more useful to galvanise rather than divide the intellectual community by bringing them together in forums that discuss those matters and come out with concerted strategies of disapproval over the events in the Holy Land?

Let me borrow some guidance here. Writing on ‘Church, State and a Pledge of Allegiance to Humanity’ on11 July2002 , HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal encouraged educational exchange schemes. He reflected upon a positive and realistic focus when he mentioned in his conclusive thought that ‘Global solidarity, though our lives depend on it, cannot be created by governments, declarations, unheeded legislation, NGO mission statements, UN exhortations, market forces, religious principles, US leadership or any other external power’. Prince Hassan reminded his readers of the Qur’anic injunction ‘Truly, God does not change the plight of a people until and unless they change what is in themselves’ [13:11]. He highlighted that global solidarity requires ‘individual people getting up and finding out what they can agree upon with their differing neighbours - and today’s ‘neighbourhood’ means the whole globe - through conversation, consciously creating goodwill, and working together to realise shared goals and values’.

HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal is one of the foremost intellectual scions let alone visionaries of the region. He is also Moderator of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, President of the Club of Rome, Chairman of the Arab Thought Forum and Executive Committee Member of the International Crisis Group. His voice should not become one that resonates alone in the wilderness. When he calls for all of us to ‘take some risk, no matter how small, to improve the situation in your corner of the world’, his plea should echo in the hearts and minds of many peoples - not least of Palestinians and Israelis who have seemingly embarked upon violence as a ‘problem for their solution’.

Intellectuals and academics bear a huge responsibility in forming public opinion. They are one of the moral and ethical compasses of the world and they should make their voices hear audibly but inclusively, clearly but non-threateningly, so that Israelis, Palestinians - Jews, Christians and Muslims alike - build their human future together.

I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it! - Attributed to Voltaire in ‘The Friends of Voltaire’ by S G Tallentyre (1906)

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2002   |   12 July


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