Facing growing criticism from a Law Center professor, University President John J. DeGioia has stood by his decision in recent weeks to criticize a proposed boycott of Israeli universities over the summer.
DeGioia’s criticism, which he expressed in an advertisement appearing in the Aug. 8 edition of The New York Times that included signatures from hundreds of university presidents across the nation, was in response to the University and Colleges Union, which represents more than 120,000 post-secondary educators in the United Kingdom that called for the boycott of Israeli universities as part of a protest of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
Louis Seidman, a professor at the Law Center, soon after wrote a letter to DeGioia protesting his signature of the advertisement, arguing that the protest could have benefited relations between Israel and Palestine. But DeGioia has since publicly defended his decision, arguing that intellectual boycotts are not appropriate.
The advertisement, which was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and was spearheaded by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, featured a statement made by Bollinger that called the proposed boycott an “intellectually shoddy and politically biased [attempt] to hijack the central mission of higher education.” The advertisement read in large font: “Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours, Too!”
Seidman said that the advertisement promoted only the Israeli side of the conflict. As an American Jew, Seidman said that he considers the United States’ “unquestionable support of Israel … both morally unjustifiable” and detrimental in the international arena.
In his open letter to DeGioia, Seidman wrote, “My own view is that at this point in history, a boycott of major Israeli institutions might play a useful role in undermining disastrous Israeli policies.”
Seidman said in an interview that DeGioia should not have signed the ad on behalf of Georgetown when it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the entire community. He said DeGioia irresponsibly signed the letter without consulting the university community. “When the Georgetown president speaks for me, I don’t like that,” Seidman said.
Seidman took action immediately after noticing the advertisement in August. He wrote a private letter to DeGioia citing his grievances, and DeGioia extended an invitation to meet with him within a week of receiving the letter.
“Much to my surprise, [DeGioia said] that he really agreed with me,” Seidman said.
But at a town hall meeting with university faculty on Sept. 25, DeGioia responded to the criticism, upholding his support of the advertisement on the grounds that he does not think Georgetown’s practices and policies should support any boycott of intellectuals.
“I appreciate the principled position of some who would say that university presidents should not sign on to statements of this sort,” he said at the town hall meeting, according to the university’s transcript. “In fact, I rarely do so, but in this instance, I believe it would have been disingenuous to give the impression, by not signing, that we support the boycott of intellectuals – when we do not.”
DeGioia said at the meeting that Georgetown is making attempts to increase its engagement with Israeli academics. He said that Georgetown is planning to receive graduate students from Bethlehem University, supporting programs between the Law Center and Hebrew University, planning a Jewish Civilization Center and partnering with an organization that works for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
“I believe that scholars and researchers must be allowed to engage in their work – without threat – regardless of the policies of their governments,” DeGioia said at the meeting. “The most fruitful way for [academia] to promote human rights is not to diminish the dialogue between scholars and societies – but to promote free expression and exchange, which will also enhance the entire global academic community.”
Seidman addressed an open letter to DeGioia that he has been attempting to distribute across campus this past week. University Provost James O’Donnell, however, denied Seidman the use of university-wide broadcast e-mail or university resources such as photocopiers to do so.
Georgetown Law Center Dean T. Alexander Aleinikoff granted Seidman the use of Law Center resources to distribute his letter. The issue has since received publicity at the Law Center in the past week through Seidman’s distribution of his letter.
University spokesperson Julie Bataille said that O’Donnell declined the use of e-mail because he “seeks to balance the need for useful information with the burden such messages place on the resources of our [information technology] systems and on the mailboxes of recipients.” She added that O’Donnell suggested that Seidman use other means of communication, such as campus mail.
Bataille added that DeGioia and Seidman “have had personal conversations about this topic and respectfully disagree on the issue.”
But Seidman wasn’t satisfied.
“They’ve been successful in stifling this issue,” he said of Main Campus administrators.
In the near future, Seidman said, he would like DeGioia to issue a statement that demonstrates greater balance about the issue.
DeGioia’s signature has irked others besides Seidman. Hammad Hammad (SFS ’08), president of Students for Justice in Palestine and a former HOYA columnist, said that by signing the advertisement, “President DeGioia misrepresented Georgetown and did not take into account the views of a significant number of the Georgetown population nor allowed for an open and honest debate about the issue.”
“The way he has reacted to criticism of his signing of the letter is extremely disappointing,” Hammad added. “DeGioia seems to have become ingrained in the politics of the status quo rather than explore all sides of this issue.”
Hammad, a Palestinian-American, said he lived in the Israeli-occupied West Bank for half of his life and has experienced first-hand “the trauma that results from Israeli air strikes, checkpoints, house arrests and demolitions and population control.” He said DeGioia’s signature of the New York Times advertisement essentially “ignore[s] the oppression experienced by millions of Palestinians living under military occupation.”
Members of the Jewish Student Association could not be reached for comment.
Seidman said that he anticipates greater protest of DeGioia’s signature from more of the university community in the coming weeks, especially as the issue receives greater publicity on the Main Campus.