Levin speaks against U.K. profs’ boycott

As of Friday, 408 American university presidents had signed on to a statement denouncing a proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Yale’s president is not among them.

Instead of signing the petition, University President Richard Levin reaffirmed his own, similar position this week. Both he and the group of university presidents have criticized a move by the University and College Union, or UCU, which represents 120,000 British professors, to consider a boycott. The boycott, which was first proposed by a Palestinian trades’ union, asks professors to end their ties with Israeli academic institutions because of concerns about the country’s human rights record.

“A boycott of Israel’s educational institutions serves no useful purpose,” Levin said in his original statement, which he issued in August. “It violates the principle of academic freedom that all universities should practice and defend.”

Although 122 presidents have added their names to the petition since it was first published in August, Levin told the News on Sunday that he still has no intention of adding his name to the list.

“I don’t sign petitions,” he said. “I prefer to make my own statements.”

In the petition, which was first published in an advertisement in the New York Times, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger called the UCU’s move “utterly antithetical to the fundamental values of the academy.” The petition — which ran with the heading “Boycott Israeli Institutions? Boycott Ours, Too!” — is sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, a Jewish advocacy organization.

Presidents of several other institutions, including Harvard and Brown universities, declined to sign on but released their own statements opposing the British boycott, said Kenneth Stern, director of the American Jewish Committee’s department of anti-Semitism and extremism and one of the petition’s coordinators. Stern said he respects their decisions, and that every major university that declined to sign the petition made a statement of its own condemning the UCU’s proposed boycott.

“Who am I to say that a president of a university shouldn’t articulate something in his or her own words?” he said.

Stern said he thinks that instead of boycotting, the British professors should try to reach out to both Israeli and Palestinian academics to form constructive partnerships.

Sara Robinson ’09, co-president of Yale Friends of Israel, said she thinks Levin handled the situation well and should not make an exception to his policy of issuing his own statements for this case.

Robinson said she thinks the boycott proposal unfairly singles out Israeli universities and does not consider universities in countries with even more questionable human rights records. Furthermore, Israeli universities are home to some of the most vocal critics of the government’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so any boycott could be counterproductive.

Arab Students’ Association Board Member Mahdi Sabbagh ’10, a Palestinian who lives in Jerusalem, said he understands the need to make a statement on Israel’s human rights record, but that a boycott is neither fair nor productive. He said he agrees with Levin’s sentiments, but thinks his statement could haven been even stronger.

“Yale should make an added effort to embrace both [Israeli and Palestinian academics] and coordinate shared programs,” he said.

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