UPDATED: Norwegian University Votes Down Anti-Israel Boycott

UPDATED: Nov. 12, 2009

The board of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) unanimously voted to reject a proposal by staff members to boycott Israel. The Board  stressed the need to maintain open communication between scientists at NTNU and those at academic institutions in Israel. This comes after a counterpetition of professors at the same university (which drew three times as many signatories as did the original boycott proposal ) and an international counter-boycott petition (which drew over 3,500 signatories — i.e. more than 1.000 times as many as the original proposal) became public.

Nov. 5, 2009  — A cultural/academic boycott of Israel now being considered by a Norwegian university could, if passed, be the first of its kind by a Western university, creating a dangerous precedent. Such campaigns, invoking various false allegations against Israel, violate the most fundamental precepts of scholarship and fuel global misinformation about and enmity toward the Jewish state.

On Thursday, November 12th, the 12-member board of governors of Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) at Trondheim — Norway’s second largest university — will convene to vote on a proposal to boycott Israeli universities. The proposal urges the university to “refrain from participating in any kind of academic or cultural cooperation with Israeli institutions and their representatives.” This follows closely on the heels of a stridently anti-Israel academic seminar series endorsed by the university’s rector and presented by lecturers noted for their outspoken hostility toward Zionism and the Jewish state.

The bigoted initiative, however, is being countered by other academics. A professor at NTNU, Bjorn Alsberg, is spearheading an effort to oppose the boycott attempts at his university, having authored his own petition against the campaign. In addition, a petition initiated by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) reiterating Professor Alsberg’s letter has been signed by more than 2000 academics worldwide, including 13 Nobel laureates. The American Association of University Professors has weighed in by voicing its opposition to the boycott proposal. Meanwhile, in an unusual move, Israel’s embassy in Norway has officially protested the NTNU lecture series.

NTNU Boycott Proposal

The boycott proposal was initiated with a petition signed by 34 staff members of NTNU and its neighboring Sor-Trondelag University College(HiST). The petition begins by stating:

Since 1948 the state of Israel has occupied Palestinian land and denied the Palestinians basic human rights. In December/January this year, Israel made a brutal attack on Gaza, resulting in immense human suffering. People all over the world were shocked by the attack, and it led to fierce protests…

The petition goes on to charge Israel’s academic institutions for enabling “the policy of oppression.” It details the allegations:

A substantial proportion of academics are directly involved in the country’s advanced weapon industry; social scientists play a central role in the construction of a nation of occupation; historians and archaeologists are important in the development of the zionist ideology and renouncement of Palestinian history and identity. Israeli academic institutions systematically discriminate against Palestinian students. The eleven Palestinian universities in Gaza and the West Bank are hampered in their activities and students and staff are under constant fear of harassment and disruption of studies and teaching. In these ways Israel goes against all the ideals of open universities and academic freedom.

The petition calls upon the boards of the NTNU and HiST to approve an academic boycott which would “cover the educational, research and culture institutions of the state of Israel and their representatives, regardless of religion or nationality” and “refrain from participating in any kind of academic or cultural cooperation with Israeli institutions and their representatives.” In addition, it urges the boycott to “to cooperate with, and give support to, institutions, organisations and persons working against the occupation and violation of the Palestinians’ human rights.”

Counter Boycott Petition

Professor Alsberg’s anti-boycott petition is translated as follows:

To the Boards of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and Sor-Torndelag University College(HiST)

A group of employees at NTNU and HiST have earlier this year in an open letter requested their respective Boards to perform a cultural and academic boycott against Israel. We who sign this letter are employees of the same institutions. We are generally positive to unbiased and objective internal discussions at NTNU/HiST on the Palestine-Israel conflict. However, we are of the opinion that it is very unfortunate if the institutions as such give their unreserved support to one of the parties in the conflict. In our view, the following arguments support that the proposed boycott should be rejected:

•The primary tasks of NTNU/HiST are research and education, not constructing their own foreign policy. To take sides in difficult political issues gives the impression of not being objective and unbiased. This goes against the university role as a meeting place of a wide range of thoughts and ideas.

•To be associated with a controversial viewpoint in such a difficult conflict will have negative consequences for NTNU/HiST internationally. Do we really want to be known as the first western university to make an academic boycott against Israel?

•Within NTNU/HiST there are also different opinions on this conflict, and a decision of boycott will tend to make internal divisions. Even we who sign this petition have different views as to how the conflict should be solved.

•We do not know if NTNU/HiST have considered all the legal aspects of a possible boycott resolution. What means are for instance the institutions willing to employ against researchers who may defy the boycott? Will their salaries be reduced, or could they be fired?

•We do not believe that a boycott decision will contribute to a peaceful solut ion to the conflict, but rather that it will result in an increased polarisation.

•NTNU would also lose by cutting the ties of scientific contact and collaboration with the various internationally renowned academic groups of Israel.

•If NTNU/HiST decide to boycott Israel, it will also be very difficult to produce rational arguments for why we should not also boycott other nations who perform far worse human rights violations. It would thus mean that the institutions initiate an ongoing process where boycott will be used to flag our standpoint in other conflicts as well.

We therefore request that the Boards of NTNU and HiST vote against the proposal of boycotting Israel. Individuals at our universities are of course free to involve themselves in international conflicts, but it is unwise that the institutions as such choose one side. Our universities will loose [sic] more than we might win by involving ourselves in a boycott.

Signed by Professor Bjorn Alsberg

SPME’s Petition To Refute and Condemn the Anti-Israel Academic Boycott Campaign at Norway’s Trondheim University can be accessed here.

NTNU’s Anti-Israel Seminar

The six-lecture series, entitled “Israel-Palestine conflict: What is research-based knowledge?” opened in September and was endorsed by NTNU’s rector, Torbjorn Digernes, who touted the series as a “research-based” attempt to shed light on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s director for international relations, Shimon Samuels, termed the seminar “a new stage in Norwegian incitement to Jew-hatred” and “outrageously anti-Israel bigotry.”

Morten Levin, an NTNU professor and one of the three-member organizing committee, similarly promoted the lecture series as “a critical and careful scrutiny based on standard scientific methods.” But none of the invited speakers come from a completely objective standpoint and many are known more for distorting research and facts in the service of demonizing Israel than for meticulous, scientific research on the subject.

For example, Exeter University Professor Ilan Pappé – the Israeli ex-patriot who in 2005, as a Haifa University professor, initiated the failed attempt by the British Association of University Teachers to boycott Israel’s academic institutions, including his own – has famously rejected the notion of “fact-based” history. According to Pappé:

…the struggle is about ideology, not about facts. Who knows what facts are? We try to convince as many people as we can that our interpretation of the facts is the correct one, and we do it because of ideological reasons, not because we are truthseekers (“An Interview of Ilan Pappé,” Baudouin Loos, Le Soir [Bruxelles],Nov. 29, 1999)

Pappé was instrumental in promoting a fabricated thesis by a Haifa University graduate student about an Israeli massacre of Palestinians that, in fact, never happened. (See “The Academic Blacklisting of Israel, the Tantura Affair and Ilan Pappe” and “BACKGROUNDER on Professor Ilan Pappé: When Ideology Trumps Scholarship“)

Pappé is slated to deliver the fourth lecture: “Ethnic cleansing of Palestine – a premise for the construction of Israel?”

Stephen Walt — of the infamous Walt and Mearsheimer duo— has used falsified quotations and wrong information to promote his thesis that American foreign policy is co-opted by an “Israel lobby” which sacrifices U.S. national interests for those of Israel. See “The Fraudulent Scholarship of Professors Walt and Mearsheimer” and “Study Decrying “Israel Lobby” Marred by Numerous Errors“)

Walt delivered the second lecture: “The Israel lobby and US foreign policy”.

Moshe Zuckerman, who heads Tel Aviv University’s Institute for German History, is a professed anti-Zionist opposed to the idea of a Jewish state. He writes for junge Welt, an anti-Israel, Marxist newspaper in Berlin (that has been criticized for being a pro-Hamas mouthpiece), and he demonizes Israel with false claims. For example, in a January 2, 2009 interview on Deutschlandradio (at the beginning of Israel’s military operation in Gaza), he informed listeners that Israel had already killed 400,000 Palestinians (when, in fact, a thousandth of that number had been killed).

Zuckerman will deliver the third lecture: “Anti-Semitism and the state of Israel as a political actor”.

The Norwegian participants are similarly known for pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel views. For example, Nils Butenschorn of the Norwegian Center for Human Rights at the University of Oslo, was for years a diligent pro-PLO activist. In 1976, he ran for leadership of Palfront, a Norwegian pro-Palestinian organization, in order to “to win entire parties and organizations for Palestine.” He has been accused of laundering money for the PLO and arranging meetings between PLO operatives and the-1970’s Israeli Black Panther members. (See “Nils Butenschorn, the Black Panthers and the PLO” and “The goal was to win entire parties and organizations for Palestine“).

Butenschorn will deliver the sixth and last lecture: “One state, two states or federation – solutions to the conflict in Middle East?”

Cecilie Hellestveit, a colleague of Butenschrn’s at the University of Oslo’s Norwegian Center for Human Rights, is notorious for an article she wrote in the Norwegian weekly, Morgenbladet, attempting to defend the head of the European Fatwa Council, Yousuf-al-Qaradawi, after his anti-Semitic remarks praising Hitler for “putting [the Jews] in their place” and expressing his own desire to become a martyr in Israel by killing Jews were published in Norwegian newspapers. (See MEMRI: “Sheikh Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi: Allah Imposed Hitler On the Jews to Punish Them – ‘Allah Willing, the Next Time Will Be at the Hand of the Believers’)

Hellestveit suggested that the cleric’s words were misunderstood and charged the Norwegian newspapers and MEMRI, which translated Qaradawi’s speeches, as taking the words out of context and offering “tendentiious” translations. She also accused the Norwegian newspapers of delivering one-sided, pro-Israel coverage. Regarding Qaradarawi’s stated wish to travel to Israel to ki ll Jews –even if in a wheelchair – to kill Jews and become a “martyr” , she turned the tables to condemn Israel. She explained that the cleric was merely comparing himself to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin – in her words, “a wise old man in a wheelchair”– and “offering himself as the victim” of Israel’s “brutality and cowardice.”

Hellestveit delivered the first seminar: “Violations of international law, human rights and the Geneva Convention in Middle East wars”

Professor Hilde Henriksen Waage of the University of Oslo, turns on those who legitimately criticize anti-Semitism by Norwegians. When a Norwegian author published an Op-Ed in Aftenposten, entitled “God’s Chosen People” declaring that “We no longer recognize the State of Israel… We don’t believe in the notion of God’s Chosen People…. To act as God’s Chosen People is not only stupid and arrogant, but a crime against humanity…” he was accused of making anti-Semitic remarks and suggesting the Jewish State should not exist. Professor Waage turned on those who made the charges, suggesting that the author would now need police protection and claiming that the “label [of anti-Semitism] is meant to hinder discussion.”

After the Jerusalem Post published a correction to an error in an article suggesting that Norwegian Finance Minister Kristin Halvorsen had chanted “Death to the Jews” at an anti-Israel rally in Oslo (Halvorsen had attended the rally where anti-Semitic chants were heard, but did not utter the chant herself), Waage described it as part of a “smear campaign against Norway.”

Professor Haage will deliver the fifth lecture: “Norway’s role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict”

While organizer Morten Levin denied that the seminar was meant to serve as the precursor to the boycott vote or that his organizing committee had any “formal connection whatsoever to the organization working for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions,” he and the other two members of the committee — Ann Rudinow Saetnan and Rune Skarstein — were all signatories to the boycott proposal.

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