CAUT by surprise

Sara R. Horowitz
York University

The British Association of University Teachers (AUT) voted just before Passover to boycott two Israeli universities.

The leading union for higher education in Britain, the AUT passed a resolution barring faculty members from Bar Ilan University and University of Haifa from participating in research projects with British colleagues, or from participating in conferences under the aegis of member universities in Britain. According to the resolution, only Bar Ilan or Haifa faculty who voiced opposition to Israeli policies toward Palestinians would be exempted from the ban.

Many readers may not know of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), the Canadian counterpart of the AUT in Britain. The CAUT was founded in 1951 to represent the interests of the academic staff at Canadian institutions of higher education, and to defend academic freedom. The individual faculty associations at different Canadian universities come under the CAUT umbrella as member associations. As a professor at York University, I am a member of the York University Faculty Association, and thus CAUT represents me.

Since the AUT decision to boycott Israeli faculty members, a number of professional and international organizations have come out strongly against the resolution. The Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) – the international society representing professors and researchers in all areas of Jewish studies – has forcefully and publicly condemned the action of the AUT as an “egregious assault on academic freedom” based on an offensive, ill-informed and partisan focus on Israeli politics. The full text of the AJS statement is available on the web ( Copies of the AJS statement were sent to other academic associations, asking for their endorsement.

As vice-president of the AJS and co-author of its statement, and as a Canadian professor represented by the CAUT, I forwarded a copy to the CAUT president, asking that she pass it along to members of the executive committee for their endorsement. Much to my surprise, within moments of receiving my e-mail, my request was refused. The CAUT, I was informed, “will not interfere in the deliberations of our international counterpart.”

By contrast, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) – an organization dedicated to protecting academic freedom – issued a strongly worded statement of its own, deploring the AUT boycott of Israeli faculty as damaging to the free exchange of ideas. The AAUP found particularly deplorable the AUT’s willingness to exclude from their ban any Israeli professor who condemned Israeli policy. Because such an exclusion “requires compliance with a political or ideological test in order for an academic relationship to continue,” the AAUP noted, it “deepens the injury to academic freedom rather than mitigates it.” (The AAUP statement may be read in its entirety at http://www.aaup. org/newsroom/press/2005/AUT.htm.)

As a Canadian professor, it grieves me that the union representing me and my colleagues falls short of the organization representing American professors. The CAUT calls academic freedom “the life blood of the modern university.” It is the right to teach, learn, study and publish free of orthodoxy or threat of reprisal and discrimination. According to the organization’s policy statement on academic freedom, “academic staff must enjoy freedom of thought, conscience, religion, expression, assembly and association.” While the CAUT speaks for Canadian academicians, it intervenes and offers public comment on issues occurring outside of Canada when it sees fit.

The CAUT refusal to consider criticizing the AUT boycott of faculty at Bar Ilan and Haifa is particularly surprising in view of CAUT’s earlier praise for the leadership of the University of Haifa and Hebrew University for “continuing teaching and research on their campuses even in the aftermath of suicide bombings and political unrest.” In a 2003 statement deploring the closure of Palestinian universities in Hebron as a response to suicide bombing, the CAUT asserted its belief that “the exploration of all ideas – even revolutionary ideas – is vital to the achievements of peace.” Affirmations such as this ring hollow, at best, when viewed alongside CAUT’s silence regarding the action of their British counterpart.

Under pressure from some of its members, the AUT will meet to reconsider its April vote to boycott Israeli professors. Should they overturn that vote, as many hope they will, CAUT’s response will be moot. But whatever the outcome of the AUT meeting, the silence of the Canadian professors’ organization discredits it as an honest broker and genuine advocate for academic freedom.

From Canadian Jewish News, May 26, 2005.