The Debate over an Academic Boycott of Israel–in Ireland

Writing for University World News, John Kelly reports on the debate over an academic boycott of Israeli universities that is now occurring in Ireland. Kelly notes that the issue has become prominent in Ireland considerably later than in most member nations of the European Union, 14 of which have governmentally endorsed the boycott. In Ireland, the issue has thus far been confined to whether academics and their professional associations would endorse the boycott.

Kelly is a professor emeritus and former registrar of University College Dublin, as well as chair of the Friends of Bethlehem University in Ireland, a non-profit supporting the only Roman Catholic university in the “Holy Land.” So, his interest in the issue is undoubtedly colored by his own direct interest in higher education in the region.

Kelly reports that the newly established Academics for Palestine forum in Ireland has gotten “many hundreds of signatures from academics in the universities and higher education institutions across the island for the following pledge:

“’In response to the call from Palestinian civil society for an academic boycott of Israel, we pledge not to engage in any professional association with Israeli academic, research and state institutions, and with those representing these institutions, until such time as Israel complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.’”

Kelly then asserts: “Such a pledge for an academic boycott of the Israeli universities, however justifiable, is totally contrary to the basic philosophy of higher education.”

Although I do not know to what degree Kelly’s arguments in defense of that thesis have been informed by an awareness of AAUP principles, those arguments do demonstrate, at the very least, the degree to which AAUP principles have become recognized as the core values that sustain higher education, worldwide:

“The overriding mission of academia is achieved through the freedom to engage freely in research, teaching and dialogue with students and colleagues, on a national or international scale – so the concept of an academic boycott is profoundly negative and goes against basic principles.

“Progress in teaching and research across all university disciplines is achieved by that very academic freedom and it is for that reason that many academics across the world have initially declined to support this boycott movement.

“It is argued that if there is to be any chance of a peaceful settlement of the conflict between the peoples of Palestine and Israel then all lines of dialogue and communication must be kept wide open, and this must apply equally to the academic as well as to the political world.”

Yes. And then, unfortunately, Kelly tries to make the case for why these principles should be ignored in this particular situation: in effect, he argues that academic freedom is one of those principles that matters more than anything else–except in those circumstances that most test our adherence to it.

So,  I am pleased that Kelly has so succinctly articulated the importance of adhering to the principle of academic freedom but I am then all the more distressed that, despite that understanding of the principle, he is so willing to abandon it. (In some ways, my response to Kelly reminds me of the responses of several Conservative bloggers to my own posts. But their criticism of my thinking seems to be running more along the lines that although my analyses are cogent, they somehow don’t produce insights or conclusions that align with any principles that Conservatives hold dear.)

The conflict in the Middle East has a long and complex history, and no one thing is going to resolve it–and certainly not anything that academics might do. But, once abandoned in the ostensible service to a particular cause, a principle cannot be reasserted as preeminent, never mind universal.

The complete text of Kelly’s article, “Academic Freedom vs. Academic Freedom,” is available at:

3 thoughts on “The Debate over an Academic Boycott of Israel–in Ireland

  1. Fundamentally, the problem with Kelly’s argument is that it embraces the principle of extortion. He thinks it’s acceptable to hold academic freedom hostage until Israeli academics successfully change their government’s policies. That’s a dangerous approach because everyone has public policies that they think are very important. Should that mean that any academic boycott is legitimate if you think it could be used to achieve some larger social goal? Should we boycott Cuban universities until Cuban academics can convince the Cuban government to protect human rights? That was the logic of the Cuban boycott, the same kind of logic that Kelly supports, but I think it was wrong. Academic freedom is a value in and of itself, and not a tool to be manipulated to force people to create social change, no matter the worthiness of the cause.

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