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Why academic freedom is a religious matter

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I WAS the first member of my family to go to university, and what I learnt there went far beyond the lectures I attended or the books I read. For the first time, I met people from every social background with every shade of belief. We argued ferociously long into the night, challenging each other’s opinions, testing yet respecting our different views on life.

I was religious, but my doctoral supervisor, the late Sir Bernard Williams, was a man who had long abandoned his religious faith. Not once, though, did that affect the care with which he oversaw my work or the kindness he showed me. Those experiences changed my life. I began to realise that more than the university was an intellectual institution, it was a moral one. It was a place where truth was honoured, all voices heard, and all claims tested under the impartial light of logic and the facts.

The late Sir Stuart Hampshire used to say that justice means hearing all sides of a conflict. In that sense the university was a place of justice. It wasn’t always so. Until the 1820s neither Jews nor Catholics could get degrees. Academic life was bound by doctrinal orthodoxy. If you held the wrong opinions you were excluded.

There is nothing inevitable about intellectual openness. Historically it has been the exception, not the rule. Today in many parts of the world holding the wrong opinions can get you barred, imprisoned, tortured or killed. That is why academic freedom matters. It took a long time to achieve. It can be lost overnight.

On April 22, 2005, the Association of University Teachers in Britain voted to boycott two Israeli universities, Haifa and Bar Ilan, on the basis of allegations both universities strenuously insist are untrue. No evidence against the charges was admitted. Debate was curtailed. When delegates opposed to the motion sought to speak they were told there was no time. The votes themselves were held on the eve of Passover, when most religious Jews were unable to attend. At a stroke, the decision threatened to plunge British university life back into the early-19th century when dissenting voices were simply barred from the academic conversation. If teachers do not fight for the hearing of all sides, who will?

As a matter of principle I spend part of every year teaching at universities, some in Britain, others in Israel. I hold Haifa and Bar Ilan in particular regard, the former because of its outreach to the Arab population who form almost a quarter of its student body, the latter because of its efforts to bridge the secular-religious divide.

Boycotts, witch-hunts, the demonisation of opponents and the use of power to silence those with whom you disagree are incompatible with academic freedom and the principles of the university. This is more than an intellectual point; it is a religious one as well. The Talmud says that the views of the school of Hillel were accepted because they taught the views of their opponents as well as their own. The Islamic philosopher Averroës insisted that truth never fears honest debate.

Aquinas put it simply: “Beware the man of one book.” Beware the institution of one mind.

Academic life is about building bridges, not destroying them; opening minds, not closing them; hearing both sides of an argument, not one alone. How ironic it is that while Israeli academics are fostering dialogue, some of their British counterparts are trying to silence it. And how tragic that Jews, after all they have contributed to academic life, are made to feel like pariahs on campus if they dare support a country they love – the country that brought democracy and academic freedom to the Middle East.

In an address at Oxford after the Second World War, the poet John Masefield said, “There are few earthly things more splendid than a university. In these days of broken frontiers and collapsing values . . . wherever a university . . . exists, the free minds of men, urged on to full and fair inquiry, may still bring wisdom into human affairs.”

That vision needs to be reaffirmed. Universities are the guardians of intellectual freedom and integrity. Boycotts are a betrayal of that trust.

(First published in The Times)