Summers Says British Boycott of Israeli Academics Is Intentionally 'Anti-Semitic'

President's words are strongest condemnation of Israel critics to date; remarks divide Harvard professors

University President Lawrence H. Summers this week blasted a British boycott of Israeli academics—drawing flack from a familiar foe and applause from his allies.

Summers’ statement on the British boycott evokes echoes of his September 2002 Memorial Church address, in which he excoriated a group of Harvard and MIT professors who had called on the University to cut financial ties to Israel. “Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent,” Summers said at the time.

On Tuesday, one of Britain's largest unions of university instructors passed a resolution urging its members to boycott speeches by Israeli academics who do not condemn "continuing Israeli apartheid policies, including construction of the exclusion wall and discriminatory educational practice."

Summers called the union’s action “anti-Semitic.”

In a statement issued Thursday, Summers said that "there is much that should be, indeed that must be, debated regarding Israeli policy…But the academic boycott resolution passed by the British professors union in the way that it singles out Israel is in my judgment anti-Semitic in both effect and in intent."

"I trust it will be repudiated in the strongest possible terms scholars in Britain and beyond," he added in comments that were first reported by the Financial Times.

The boycott controversy began in March 2005 when Britain’s Association of University Teachers (AUT) passed an advisory resolution urging its 48,000 members to boycott Israel's University of Haifa and Bar-Ilan University. AUT targeted the two institutions because Haifa had allegedly disciplined a lecturer after he defended a student who criticized Israel, and because Bar-Ilan held courses in the West Bank, an area designated by the United Nations as “occupied territory.”

In May 2005, the AUT backtracked, citing strong internal and external opposition and reversing the previous call for a boycott. But another union, the 67,000-strong National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) renewed the controversy this Tuesday when it urged its members to boycott Israeli academics who do not distance themselves from their government. Complicating the matter is the fact that the AUT and the NATFHE merged on Thursday.

Before the merger, the AUT condemned the NATFHE action in a statement in which it cited its experiences from last year.

"In May 2005 AUT council overwhelmingly rejected an earlier decision to boycott two Israeli universities," AUT said in a statement this week. "[F]reedom of expression, open debate and unhampered dialogue are prerequisites of academic freedom."

Summers' statement is notable in part because he said that NAFTHE's actions were intentionally anti-Semitic. In his 2002 Memorial Church speech, Summers held out the possibility that supporters of the Israel divestment petition might not be anti-Semitic “in intent.”

Summers did not immediately respond to questions late last night about the change in wording.

Like his 2002 remarks, Summers’ statement this week has drawn fire here at Harvard. One of Summers' fiercest critics, Professor of Anthropology and of African and African American Studies J. Lorand Matory '82, said that "the knee jerk accusation that targeted criticism of Israel singles out Israel is as absurd as stating that the anti-apartheid movement was singling out South Africa."

Matory said that the criticism of Israel was appropriate because of the “extraordinary” support that the country has received from the U.S. and other Western governments.

But former Harvard lecturer Martin Peretz, the editor-in-chief of The New Republic and a prominent supporter of Israel, defended Summers, saying that he "is absolutely right," and that "he was one of the first people to recognize this trend in the American academy."

"In a way, it is good that these academics have expressed themselves in this way because it will make people understand how intellectual honesty is easily vanquished by propaganda," Peretz said.

Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz, another strong supporter of Israel, pointed to what he said was Israel's strong human rights record compared to other nations.

"In a world with so many human rights violators—China, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Sudan, etc.—the singling out of Israel, whose human rights record is far superior to those of most countries, is a destructive act of bigotry directed at the Jewish state because it is the Jewish state."

But Matory took issue with the idea that critics of Israel were not motivated by a concern for human rights.

"It's no surprise that the same people who are critical of Israel tended to be highly critical of South Africa's apartheid regime and are now highly critical of the Sudanese government," he said. "If Israel has been singled out in any way, it has been through its exemption from criticism and the allegation that criticism of Israel is somehow anti-Semitism."

—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at pbhayani@fas.harvard.edu.