As a woman, a Muslim and as a physician of Pakistani descent, I can attest personally to the inordinate importance of academic freedom in Britain and the United States. This freedom was extended to me even during the time I was practicing medicine in Saudi Arabia, where - like all women – I was subject to gender apartheid. Because of this experience, I can only see the closing of the academic mind in the form of the ‘academic boycott’ of Israeli citizens and institutions as the act of invertebrate hypocrites. Boycotting Israel, whether academic or cultural is not an act of moral indignation, but an act of moral turpitude.
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Academic freedom builds relationships, tolerance, and opportunity. When I moved to Riyadh 15 years ago, I had no doubts about maintaining my professional relationship with my own Jewish American mentor who had guided me throughout my then early career.
While I lived and worked in a country where as a Muslim I could worship but my mentor and his coreligionists could not, I was given every opportunity to develop in the American academic space because of his intellectual generosity. While I was subject to legislated male supremacy and relegated to being a legal minor, no Western academic suggested boycotting the medical academe hosting me in the Kingdom.
Academic freedom was in fact my only freedom at the time and I was determined to share it. I connected my Saudi colleagues - leading Saudi Muslim academics - with my mentor which led to the publication of jointly-authored papers on patient care in the Arab Gulf, benefiting primarily Muslim patients. This work sowed the seeds for subsequent conferences where both my Saudi Muslim and American Jewish colleagues met and developed their own relationships.
In contrast, boycotting Israeli entities penalizes apolitical individuals, their institutions, their innovations and ultimately, stymies a global market of ideas which benefits humanity. Perhaps it's possible to make a more generous assessment of why the various scholars, writers and entertainers who call for a boycott of 'apartheid Israel' claim to act in the interests of Palestinians: That it's based on simple ignorance. They would certainly be wiser if they had had the same opportunity that I recently enjoyed when I visited Israel to meet Israeli academia, and – critically – examined how such a boycott, whether overt or covert, particularly damages Israeli Arabs, or Palestinian citizens of Israel.
I spoke to Arab Muslim undergraduates at Haifa's Technion University during my visit in May this year. Arab undergraduates (most of whom are Muslim with a smaller Christian representation) lead a program to remove barriers to success of fellow Arab undergraduates there. Professor Daoud Bshouty, Dean of Undergraduate Studies (and both Israel’s and Technion's first Christian Arab faculty member) and Sara Katzir, former Israeli Airforce officer and head of the Beatrice Weston Unit for the Advancement of Students, explained the origin of the program, joined by Assistant Professor Youseff Jabareen, an Arab Israeli Muslim graduate, and the Muslim undergraduate Maysoun Hindawi, who related their own experiences as minorities.
When, eight years ago, the Technion examined their own data, they were dismayed to find a high drop-out rate amongst Arab undergraduates, even though they had met the rigorous entry criteria to a university consistently rated amongst the top three science institutes in the world. This was an untenable loss of intellectual talent for the university and in their mind, for Israel.
Since then, the Beatrice Weston Unit for the Advancement of Students has developed one-on-one peer mentorship by and for Israeli Arab undergraduates, with men mentoring men and women mentoring women in view of the cultural sensitivities. The program was funded by Jewish American philanthropists intent on serving all sectors of Technion’s students, majority and minority alike.
In the program, Technion students run after-class tutorials to help each other keep pace with the rapid absorption of knowledge required; sometimes, student mentors intervene in family dilemmas to advocate on behalf of a fellow student to his distressed family. They do so by mediating between student and parents struggling to resolve traditional cultural mores with the demands of advanced education. They render personal counseling on these and other adjustment difficulties, concentration and learning difficulties and the challenges of making vocational choices.
In less than a decade, the Weston Advancement Unit has improved the Technion’s Israeli Arab undergraduate retention rate by over 50 percent, with more gains likely. But The Technion’s support extends beyond their undergraduates. Many Israeli Arabs attend Arabic medium schools, so the move to the Hebrew-language university is a significant challenge. In response, candidates identified as Technion material are given intense year-long programs preparing them (and their Hebrew) – developed by the university itself.
Dumbfounded, I asked why an institution, supposedly pitiless when it comes to academic competition, would devote energies to empower the disadvantaged? Surely academia was the base evolutionary battle of our times: “survival of the fittest”? After all, Technion is affectionately known by its faculty and students as “The City with No Pity’ (referring to Technion’s purist, hardcore meritocracy).
“We have a moral obligation to develop everyone who enters the Technion, because we must nurture scientific ability. It is our responsibility," Katzir told me. The advancement program has been so effective at closing disparity gaps that it has now been rolled out across the institute and offered to every Technion undergrad who needs it, minority or not. After winning national awards, this program is being emulated at other Israeli institutions at government request.
There are also life experience and leadership gaps that need to be overcome for minority students. At the Technion, Maysoun explained, Arab Muslim students are often the first in their families -sometimes in generations - to enter higher education, and, in the case of women, may be breaking stereotypical gender roles in conservative families who may not approve of a female student living on campus. Arab Muslim students must also overcome a leadership gap created by the military service that their Jewish peers have gone through. The program develops the leadership skills of its Israeli Arab Muslim undergraduates who direct many activities themselves, based on merit, not ‘quota’.
My Technion experience clarified for me how calls for academic boycott would particularly imperil the future of these Arab Israeli students and the progressive opportunities they are offered. The shockingly ignorant acquiescence to the widespread braying for boycott, now a socially acceptable sport eclipsing the spirit of academe, whether led by Stephen Hawking or others, reveals the depth to which anti-Israel bias is now entrenched in our ivory towers.
The reality is simple: Calling for an Israeli boycott invites no reprisals. It is more than socially acceptable; it is a badge of honor brandished by those claiming to defend ‘minorities’. Yet ironically, while the costs of boycott will be shouldered by every Israeli, the major costs will be born by Israel’s own minority population, including Israeli Muslims of Palestinian heritage. This is a population which is for the first time becoming highly educated, advancing in the workplace, collaborating with their fellow Israeli Jewish citizens and eager to enter the global marketplace of ideas. These Israeli Muslim Arabs are the keystones to lasting peace in the region. No one else is better positioned to bridge conflicts and cultures and yet no one else will be more penalized by boycott.
Academic freedom means the freedom to collaborate, the freedom to cooperate, the freedom to communicate, the freedom to investigate, and the freedom to know the other. Isolating Israelis imposes upon all of us outside of Israel the worst kind of self-isolation, one which denies our engagement not only with the richly intellectual and extraordinarily productive Israeli academic community but access to those minorities facing the greatest challenges in Israel. The boycott flattens the painstakingly earned, inch-by-inch progress towards coexistence within and outside Israel; and coexistence is surely the primary step towards regional peace. At this discouraging time of increasing academic and cultural siege, every thoughtful academic should join me in lending their name and their reputation to fighting the boycott.
Qanta Ahmed MD is the author of In the Land of Invisible Women (2008), a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion and Associate Professor of Medicine, State University of New York. Follow her on Twitter @MissDiagnosis.