Monday, June 25th, 2018 – University of Haifa President, Professor Ron Robin, gave the keynote address at the 34th Annual Conference of the Association of Israel Studies (AIS). Held for the first time at the University of California, Berkeley (where Pres. Robin received his Ph.D.), the conference brought together humanities and social science scholars, as well as Ph.D. candidates from around the world whose research focuses on the modern state of Israel.
President Robin’s keynote speech addressed the major points of friction surrounding free speech within the University sphere, particularly as reflected on Israeli campuses. President Robin argued that Universities are institutions of education, not sovereign states, and, as such, are responsible for ensuring that free speech on campuses reflects a pedagogical mission.
In his engaging lecture, President Robin examined the state of political activism on Israeli campuses, the role of university administration in censoring materials that run counter to the aims of the universities, and the challenges facing academia in opposing Boycott Divisions and Sanctions (BDS).
Regarding political activism on Israeli campuses, President Robin acknowledged the disappointing lack thereof. He examined the situation at the University of Haifa, a campus historically on the forefront of strong political activism. Recognizing that this is no longer the case, President Robin contended that it may in part be due to the large female student population. Of the 40% of the Arab undergrad students currently attending the University of Haifa, 70% are female – a group sociologically proved to be less inclined towards political activism.
In discussing free speech on campuses, President Robin referenced his former role as Dean of Students at the University of Haifa between 2000-2005 and identified times in which free speech materials needed to be edited in order to ensure respect among students. Rather than creating hostility, free speech on university campuses, he argued, should aim to create an engaging dialogue that provokes thought and the exchange of ideas. He explained that universities practice censorship in order to maintain the ethical standards by which they identify. Universities are not public forums and as such, “free speech and academic freedom do not always go hand-in-hand.”
Hearing an Israeli university President’s thoughts on BDS was a necessity to this group of scholars and President Robin did not shy away from the challenging topic. He pointed out that the BDS movement within academia is stronger than in other fields and that the humanities and social sciences suffer the most from its detrimental consequences. He contended that politically-based boycotts within academia lead to an “abrogation of our most fundamental rights as academics.”
Differentiating between sovereign-state sanctioned boycotts – which eclipse academic dominance – and organization-based professional boycotts aimed at interfering with academics’ careers, he cited his own experience of choosing to leave the Association of American Studies after being made to feel that, as an Israeli, his academic contributions were unwelcome. He stated, “If organizations turn their backs on Israeli scholars, the results will be catastrophic.” Scholars should not be prevented from contributing their work to academic journals or participating in conferences due to their national or political affiliation.
The irony of an Israeli professor giving an address on the topic of free-speech at a school known for both its commitment to student activism and its anti-Israel activity did not go unnoticed. For President Robin, it was likely a nostalgic return to a setting he once called home – the conference serving as a warm refuge within the larger context of anti-Israel activism trending across the campus. One hopes that the decision to host the AIS conference at UC Berkeley and President Robin’s keynote invitation are signs of change to come.