Campus Watch in the Media
The Threat to Academic Freedom in Israel-Palestine
by David Newman
In 2002, a letter was published in the British newspaper, the Guardian, calling for a blanket boycott of the Israeli academic community. The letter's authors, two academics at Britain's Open University, offered the boycott as a legitimate means for the academic community to protest the continuation of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the denial of Palestinian rights to self-determination, and the hard line retaliation of the Sharon government against the Palestinian terror and suicide bombings inside Israel. The proponents of the boycott argued that the situation was similar to that which occurred in South Africa during the apartheid period; they suggested that an academic boycott, along with sports and cultural boycotts, could have a similar impact in Israel.
In reality, the call for an academic boycott has had a limited effect. Israeli academics continue to participate in international research and conferences and they still publish in peer journals. But there is another, perhaps greater, threat to the integrity and quality of academic research and freedom of expression that has emerged in recent years—it is a growing McCarthyism, both in Israel and North America, that opposes any expression of critical social or political thought. This is aimed at silencing the Israeli liberal Left in their critique of Israeli government policy vis-à-vis the Occupied Territories and the fate of the Palestinians. It is a campaign that has gained in strength in the post-9/11 era (in the United States) and the post-Camp-David era (in Israel) as the right wing has grown in self-confidence at the expense of a confused and disoriented Left.
The Academic Boycott
The Guardian letter urging an academic boycott did have some legs. It spawned a petition which was signed by an additional seventy academics. In the following months, similar calls for a boycott were put forward amongst French academics, while a number of American universities raised the issue of disinvestment in Israel. In some cases, such as at U.C. Berkeley, there was a noticeable increase in anti-Israel activity on campus accompanying these calls, while at some Canadian universities such as Concordia in Montreal and York in Toronto, Israeli politicians and pro-Israel pundits (Netanyahu at Concordia and Daniel Pipes at York) were prevented from speaking. Some academics refused to attend scientific seminars and conferences in Israel, while some international academic organizations postponed symposiums in Israel until a later, unspecified, date.
Two cases of attempted boycott achieved prominence. The Egyptian editor (based at Manchester University) of an international journal fired two Israeli members of her editorial board because of their national affiliation. In another case, the British editor of the international journal, Political Geography, refused to process a manuscript which had been submitted by an Israeli academic. Ironically, in the latter case, the paper had been submitted by Oren Yiftachel of Ben Gurion University, an Israeli professor of geography who is generally considered to be one of the most critical voices against the Occupation and in favor of Palestinian rights. The paper had been submitted jointly with a Palestinian scholar, Asad Ghanem of Haifa University, who suddenly found himself a target of the attempted boycott. The manuscript was later processed by the American editor of the journal, who made it clear that it was not the policy of the journal to engage in such a boycott, that the editorial board had never been consulted on this issue by the British editor, and that he (the British editor) had acted on his own personal instinct. But following the publication of this story as a major feature in the Guardian newspaper, this incident became a rallying cry to all those opposed to such a boycott, including many right-wing Israeli politicians and academics who would not normally have desired to see the critical writings of Yiftachel and Ghanem published in any form.
The attempted boycott brought in its wake a counter-petition from many amongst the international academic community. Within the space of a few weeks, a counter-boycott website had attracted more than 14,000 signatures from universities throughout the globe, including many prominent scientists who, while stating that they opposed the policies of the Israeli government and supported the immediate end of occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian State, equally opposed the attempt to tamper with freedom of expression. Some even went so far as to equate such blanket boycotts with similar sorts of activities practiced during the Nazi regime.
The calls for an academic boycott were immediately seized upon by the Israeli and Jewish right wing to accuse the boycotters of anti-Semitism. The fact that the boycott petition emanated from Europe, rather than the United States, was for many of them proof that Europe remained a hotbed for latent anti-Semitism, even amongst the educated and intellectual sectors of society. Of greater significance, however, was the fact that many left-wing Israeli academics who were also very critical of Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories opposed the boycott on the grounds that it would cause irreparable harm to those who constituted the voice of protest inside Israel, who worked closely with Palestinian academic and human rights organizations, and who promoted joint Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and scientific activities. The academic community was among the first to undertake pro-peace activities in the past and continues to be in the forefront of pro-peace, anti-occupation dialogue. The implementation of a blanket boycott would, they argued, severely damage those groups and activities which the boycotters, in principle, supported.
Overall, the attempts at boycott have had a minimal influence on Israeli academic activities. Israeli scientists continue to participate in international conventions, to receive prestigious research grants, and to be invited to universities and research institutions throughout the world. At most, there has been a significant downturn in the number and size of international conventions being held in Israel itself, with some being postponed to later dates. However, this is due more to fear amongst participants of traveling to a volatile area where they could be affected by chance violence (which also explains the almost total collapse of the Israeli tourism industry during the past two years) than to any ideological pro-boycott conviction.
Academic Discourse in Israeli Life
Israeli academics are closely involved in the public and political debates inside Israel. They often appear on TV with politicians. The political petitions which are commonplace in the weekend editions of Israeli newspapers are often composed, and signed, by university faculty. Many academics write regular opinion columns in the popular press, promoting specific arguments relating to the peace process. Notable among these have been Professor Zeev Sternhell (a political scientist) and Professor Barukh Kimmerling (a sociologist) from the Hebrew University, both of whom have advocated anti-occupation and post-Zionist discourses in the liberal newspaper, Haaretz.
Because many of these columnists are anti-Occupation and pro-peace, it is common to suggest that most Israeli academics are leftists. The truth is that the Israeli academic community, like any other, is characterized by a diversity of political opinion—faculty are equally rolled out by politicians to show their support of left-wing, centrist, right-wing, and security-oriented discourses. Independent research institutes not affiliated with the universities have been founded to promote specific political discourses. The most notable of these is the Shalem Institute, funded by the Lauder family, whose attested objective is to promote a pro-nationalist, pro-Zionist discourse amongst its research faculty. Of Israel's five universities, one of them—Bar Ilan University—is a religious university and has a far higher proportion of faculty supporting a rightist discourse. Bar Ilan's BESA (Begin-Sadat) Center for Strategic Studies, set up and funded by a member of the Canadian Jewish community, Mr. Tommy Hecht, has the professed aim of presenting an alternative analysis of events to that offered by the more centrist Yaffe center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. The Ariel College, a right-wing institute established in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, has been pressing for full university status from the national Council for Higher Education, and is supported by the right-wing Minister of Education Limor Livnat.
By contrast, there are two major centers for peace studies: the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the Steinmetz Center at Tel Aviv University. Both of these centers promote and support peace-related research, and their findings are often used by politicians on the Left to advance their own specific political agendas. While the "peace industry" has become a major source of funding for research activities in the post-Oslo period, the Truman Institute was a pioneer in the field, promoting contacts between Israeli and Palestinian scholars as far back as the early 1980's, in a period when such relationships were almost unheard of. Until the onset of the Oslo Accords, Israeli law forbade the meeting of Israeli citizens with known members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which often precluded any form of political contact at all. Meetings between academics at bona fide international workshops and conventions became one of the most common conduits through which Israelis and Palestinians met with each other, exchanged ideas, and created a common discourse. A third leftist center, the Givat Haviva Institute, promotes Israeli-Arab dialogue and cooperative research and tends to attract faculty who are pro-peace in their orientation, much in the same way the Shalem Institute and the Ariel College attract faculty whose political orientations are to the right.
The only organized group of Israeli academics with a clear political orientation is the extreme right-wing Professors for a Strong Israel. Members of this group advocate policies which are far to the right of the present Likud government, including the transfer of Arab-Palestinian citizens out of Israel and opposition to any form of peace accords or territorial withdrawal—even the limited Gaza disengagement proposed by Sharon. Some of their articles appear on extreme right-wing websites, including those associated with the illegal Kahane organization.
The Israeli parliament (the Knesset) has a number of members who emerged from within the academic community. The most notable of these are Dr. Yossi Beilin, a historian, one of the architects of the Oslo Peace Accords, and the recently elected leader of the new Yachad Party which will replace Meretz at the next elections; and Professor Naomi Chazan [featured in this issue on page 23], a political scientist, expert on Africa, and the former director of the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University. At the other end of the political spectrum, Dr. Yuval Steinitz, a philosopher from Haifa University, has recently been appointed as chairman of the influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the current Israeli government, while Moshe Arens, former Defense and Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the United States, was a professor of aeronautical engineering.
The New McCarthyism
The political atmosphere in both the United States and Israel during the past two to three years has brought, in its wake, an emerging McCarthyism aimed at preventing pro-peace and left-of-center academics from expressing their opinions. This is reflected both in the right-wing takeover of most of the main media outlets (often on the back of their criticism of the media for being too left wing and pro-Oslo), as well as in a concerted attack against faculty who express their views in media and other forms of popular debate.
In the past, academic political activity in Israel has had the kind of free rein one would expect in a democracy. Though politicians have been known to express their dissatisfaction with what some of them perceive to be excessive intervention of faculty in the public debate, the academic system itself—particularly the promotion system—has been relatively free of any direct political intervention (although the lack of transparency in the decision-making process relating to academic promotions makes it difficult to know how undercurrents of political sympathies may, or may not, influence the decisions). There have been a small number of well-publicized cases where political intervention in the process has been more blatant. For example, specific members of the Israeli academic community who are known for their strong political critiques of Israeli government policy, over and beyond what are normally considered acceptable levels of criticism, such as revisionist historian Professor Ilan Pappe at Haifa University and education professor Haim Gordon at Ben Gurion University, have been targets of much political and public criticism. In the case of Pappe, there was even an attempt to formally censure him for his activities which, it was argued, discredited the name of his university. While the accusations against him dealt with a series of procedural matters, it was commonly believed that the underlying factor behind the attempt at censure was Pappe's outspoken political positions—including his support of the proposed international boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
The attacks on left-of-center views have come from two sources: from within academia itself and from political circles. The critiques focus on two areas of discussion: first, support for what is euphemistically known as "post-Zionism" debate; and second, support for the peace process despite the return of terror to the streets of Israel.
In the former case, well known academics such as Kimmerling and Sternhell (at the Hebrew University) and Oren Yiftachel and Uri Ram (at Ben Gurion University) have been at the forefront of the so-called "post-Zionist" debate, which posits Israel as a "State of all its citizens" rather than as a nationally defined Jewish State in which one national or religious group has preferential status. This has become the core of post-Zionism, drawing on notions of post-nationalism as a framework for a critical analysis of Israeli statehood and society. Critique of this post-Zionist approach has come not only from the right wing, but even—in some cases most specifically—from the left-of-center, liberal academic establishment, including some of Israel's best known professors of history, political science, and sociology. This Left has traditionally based its critique of Israeli society and institutions within the accepted framework of the raison d'être of the Jewish State, while the post-Zionist critique takes the debate beyond these accepted discourse boundaries. As such, the more traditional Left see their own analytical hegemony being challenged by a younger, more globally influenced, more critical group of scholars.
Much of this debate has taken place within the framework of what has become known as the "Humphrey Seminar," a weekly interdisciplinary colloquium at Ben Gurion University. Organized by the Humphrey Institute of Social Research, it attracts upwards of forty participants—faculty and research students—from almost all the social science departments in this university.
The critique of this new post-Zionist analytical approach has been adopted by many politicians, including some government ministers, most notably—and most dangerously—the current radical Minister of Education in the right-wing Likud government, Limor Livnat. She has attacked critical scholars for being anti-ideological and anti-Israel and, as such, has attempted to use her political influence to intervene in the free academic debate which has traditionally taken place in Israel. Some of the younger scholars have been warned that their future promotion, especially their tenure process, could be affected by their involvement in the critical political debate. In some cases, right-wing academics and media polemicists have used their own forums to "name" the so-called anti-State academics, to accuse them of accepting research funding from anti-Israel organizations (of which the European Community tops the list).
In one case, a young political philosopher and human rights campaigner from Ben Gurion University, Dr. Neve Gordon, was accused by an extreme right-wing polemicist from Haifa University, Dr. Stephen Plaut, of being a supporter of Norman Finkelstein, whose book, The Holocaust Industry, led many on the Right to associate him with Holocaust deniers. When Gordon decided to sue him for libel, Plaut subsequently disseminated articles attacking Gordon on the Internet, including on some extreme right-wing Kahanist sites. Morton Klein, the head of the Zionist Organization in America, also weighed in against Gordon by writing to the President and the Rector of Ben Gurion University questioning the continued employment of Gordon and protesing his libel case which, Klein argued, was an intervention in the civil liberties of Plaut because it denied Plaut's right to freedom of expression! Klein's letter included citations and sources taken from extreme right-wing websites including the outlawed Kahane organization.
Writing under assumed names, Plaut has a long history of attacking, labeling, and targeting left-wing scholars in Israel. One anonymous article appeared under the name of Socrates in the Middle East Review of 2001. He is joined on the pages of the neo-conservative magazine Azure by fellow right-wing polemicist Alek Epstein, who has accused much of the Israeli sociological community of having been overly involved in political and post-Zionist critique at the expense of qualitative academic research and teaching within the wider field of sociology. Extreme websites such as the outlawed Kahane site have become full of right-wing polemical attacks on anything seen as constituting a liberal critique of Israel or Israeli government policies. American neo-conservative academic Daniel Pipes is responsible for the creation of a website which asks students to report on any lecturer perceived as being critical of Israel. Pipes' hardline positions on Islam and his blind support for the Bush Administration and its policies, along with his critique of Israeli peace plans aimed at the eventual creation of two States, have pushed him into a position of prominence in the post-9/11 era. He has recently been named by President Bush as a member of the advisory board of the United States Institute of Peace.
This overt political intervention in academic freedom of expression came to a head with a letter sent by right-wing Minister of Education Limor Livnat to Ben Gurion University President Professor Avishay Braverman, in which she stated that she would not be attending the annual meeting of the university's Board of Governors since the university continued to employ faculty who, she argued, were anti-Israel. Livnat singled out an article by Dr. Lev Grinberg which was published in Belgium and which used the term "symbolic genocide" to characterize the Israeli government policy of political assassinations, such as that of Sheikh Yassin in Gaza. This attempted intervention on the part of the Education Minister resulted in a strong letter of protest on the part of the Israeli Association of Civil Rights, as well as a number of petitions signed by Israeli academics, supporting the refusal of university heads to cave in to these political demands. Self-appointed super-patriots in the United States have written to donors and supporters of the university, urging them to withhold their support as long as these "seditious" members of the faculty are not fired. Such pressure has not been applied to faculty members at the same university who adopt extreme far-right positions, reflecting perhaps on the political preferences of some of the more activist elements of the North American Jewish community.
This form of right-wing critique has strong roots. A decade ago, Haifa University professor of geography, Arnon Soffer, attacked me and my Palestinian colleague, Ghazi Falah, for having undertaken joint academic research in the pre-Oslo period. Soffer even distributed a "secret" letter to the Israeli geographic community recommending that we be expelled from the Israel Geographical Association (IGA). In a later lecture at the annual conference of the IGA, Soffer described some liberal geographers as being no more than "pen mercenaries" in the service of foreign interests. Soffer regularly lectures to the National Security Council, composed of the military and defense elites of the country, and is known for his doomsday demographic predictions for the country if Arab birth rates continue to increase at their present pace, thus eventually outstripping the Jewish demographic majority in the country.
In the post-9/11 era in the United States, and in the post-Oslo period in Israel, attempts to silence the voices of criticism have become even stronger. Barely a week goes by without an anti-academic opinion column in one of the country's newspapers. The Jerusalem Post has become the home for writers representing neo-conservative and extreme Republican perspectives on Israeli society, with alternative opinion columns relegated to a marginal position or ceased/stopped altogether. In some ways, this is seen as a counter-balance to the liberal opinions reflected in the country's main quality and intellectual paper, Haaretz (in some ways the equivalent of The Guardian or Le Monde). But it has become increasingly polemical, radical, and threatening in the past eighteen months—using the collapse of the Oslo peace process as a reason for supporting the Sharon government, opposing any form of Palestinian statehood, and attacking all of critical, alternative analyses of Israeli society or the peace process. Liberal and critical authors who are not Israeli or Jewish are, more often than not, simplistically labeled as anti-Semites, while others are refered to as "self hating Jews."
Israel still enjoys a relativity free and open public and academic debate. But the forces of McCarthyism are at work in their attempt to silence alternative opinions. Voices calling for the trial of the "Oslo criminals" (meaning Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin) and posters in the streets calling for "Transfer Now" (meaning the transfer of Palestinians out of Israel—a play on the slogan "Peace Now") have become an accepted part of public discourse, where once they would have been labeled as radical and fringe. This, in turn, reflects the way the Israeli (Jewish) public has moved from the left to the center and from the center to the right during the past three years, influenced greatly by the increase in Palestinian suicide bombings and acts of violence against Israeli civilians. The threat of an academic boycott is used by these nationalist and self-appointed guardians of Israeli patriotism as a means of pouring even more scorn upon anyone who would be critical of Israel, serving to weaken the cause of liberal and/or post-peace critiques. Just as it is not easy for an American academic to be critical of U.S. policies in a post-9/11 environment, so it is not easy for Israeli academics to be critical of anti-Palestinian policy following the collapse of the Oslo Agreements and the return to terror and mutual violence.
Boycotting the Israeli academic community only plays into the hands of the right-wing critiques. The fact that a small number of misguided left-wing Israeli academics have supported the call for such a boycott has only added unnecessary fuel to the fire. But what is really at stake is not the limited success of the boycott, but the real threat facing critical social perspectives on Israeli society in general, and academia in particular. It is important that this growing right-wing McCarthyism be combated, that letters of support for the principles of academic freedom be sent to supporters and leaders of Israeli universities and academic institutions, encouraging them to stand firm and not give in to the pressures of the radical Right. If the field of criticism is left vacant for the right wing and its constant barrage of letters and protests, then it will win the battle over public discourse. Rather than becoming involved in an unethical boycott, it is important for left-wing members of the Israeli academic community to be supported, rather than shunned, by their colleagues throughout the world. Otherwise they will become increasingly isolated within a hostile political environment. It is incumbent upon the international academic community, as well as the progressive members of the Jewish community, to be as active in upholding the right of academic freedom as are the right wingers in their attempt to destroy it.
Campus Watch contact e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org