Nov 13, 2010

#BDS:Letter from California Scholars for Academic Freedom to the Chancellor of UC-Berkeley

Dear Chancellor Birgeneau:
We write as members of the California Scholars for Academic Freedom (cs4af)**-- an organization with an ever-expanding membership of over 150-- to express our concerns about efforts to prevent an event, “What Can American Academia Do to Realize Justice for the Palestinians,” that was held on the Berkeley campus on October 26. The event had six co-sponsors, including the campus organization Muslim Identities and Cultures Working Group of the Townsend Center for the Humanities, featured presentations by Lisa Taraki, Associate Professor of Sociology at Bir Zeit Univerity and Hatem Bazian, a lecturer at UC Berkeley. The objections were directed at both the theme of the event in support of the Palestinian struggle for justice, and its supposed lack of scholarly quality. From all accounts, the event was well attended, informative, with broad audience participation, and proceeded without difficulties in the best university traditions of academic freedom, including engagement with the critical social and political issues of the day. In our judgment, the speakers had impressive scholarly credentials to address this subject-matter, and from the reports we have received, developed their arguments through reasoned and informed analysis and left ample time for audience questions and commentary.

We feel, nevertheless, that it is important to register our concerns due to the inflammatory letter of October 21 from UCLA Professor Emeritus Leila Beckwith, UCSC Lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, and UCI Lecturer Roberta Seid asking you to take steps to cancel the event because of the substance of the event and the involvement of the Townsend Center. We are pleased that you endorsed the statement of Professor Anthony Cascardi, Director of the Townsend Center. Nonetheless, we feel that in some respects more needs to be said at this time in support of academic freedom regarding substantive issues of such great political sensitivity in order to discourage future difficulties and to affirm the discretion of campus organizations to host and organize appropriate activities without undue harassment and accompanying anxieties.

In particular, we are concerned about implications that discussions about the propriety and importance of boycotts and divestment initiatives relating to Israel are to be discredited by being labeled as 'anti-semitic,’ or somehow incompatible with the presence and comfort level and even the safety of Jewish students on UC campuses. We emphatically contend that the cause of justice for the Palestinian people is a proper subject of current inquiry for any academic or community. Issues of this sort stimulate informed debate, as well as provide ways of peacefully participating in matters of great public and ethical concern. It should be recalled that an earlier generation of students and faculty greatly benefited educationally from academic events organized to discuss similar movements of boycott and divestment seeking the transformation of apartheid South Africa. Of course, in the present context there is no ethnic or religious animus directed against Jews or Israel, and it is a matter of fact that there are many Jewish advocates of and activists on behalf of boycott and divestment, including in Israel itself. This event at Berkeley, incidentally, was co-sponsored by diverse organizations with members from all major faiths. It is notable that ongoing efforts along the same lines with respect to such current situations as exist in Tibet, Sudan, and Myanmar have encountered no comparable objections, and if interference were to be attempted, would presumably be brushed aside by a strong administrative response in defense of academic freedom.

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