Is the Israeli academy facing a McCarthyite era?

7 August 2010

By Matthew Reisz

Political interference could put freedom of speech in universities at stake, says Matthew Reisz

When it comes to the Israeli academy, said David S. Katz, director of the Lessing Institute for European History at Tel Aviv University, “we are entering a McCarthyite phase – and I do not exaggerate”.

“There is legislation being discussed that would limit freedom of expression in universities,” he said. “The education minister [Gideon Sa’ar] has expressed satisfaction with a report that looks at the course content of professors, sniffing out ‘anti-Zionist’ ideology. The Knesset Education Committee is behind this initiative as well. It is very bad indeed, and the universities have done little to reject this, apart from the rector of Haifa University [Yossi Ben-Artzi], who was very forthcoming.”

At the front line of the conflict are a handful of academics, such as Rachel Giora, professor of linguistics at Tel Aviv University, who support international calls for a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

Pointing to “the growing number of Israeli assaults on Palestinians’ cities, towns, villages and refugee camps both within and outside the occupied territories”, as well as events such as the attack on Gaza during the winter of 2008-09 and the deaths on the “Freedom flotilla” in May this year, Professor Giora argued that “the state’s legitimacy has been gradually undermined”, leading to “waves of vocal criticism” across the world.

International condemnation has also created a far less comfortable environment for internal critics, she said, having led to “massive defence tactics aimed particularly at bashing academics supportive of boycott initiatives”.

Professor Giora said: “Repression of protest was no longer implicit. All hell broke loose.”

Amid public calls for their dismissal, abuse and even death threats, Mr Sa’ar explicitly announced his determination to take action, claiming that “when an Israeli academic preaches for academic boycott, he crosses a red line”.

This led to a petition of protest signed by 542 Israeli academics, including the former education minister Yuli Tamir, stating that “if the higher education system in Israel wants to maintain a high quality, it must include opinions that are not acceptable to everyone, social and political criticism, and critical and even controversial research and instruction”.

Protesters also looked askance at the minister’s support for a recent report by the Im Tirtzu youth movement, which has suggested that political science departments in Israeli universities suffer from a “post-Zionist bias”.

Thin end of the wedge

Mr Sa’ar, however, robustly defended his stance.

It was the petitioners, he told Radio Israel in July, who were “harming the institutions for which they teach and are funded by the citizens of Israel…The question here is whether there are absolutely no limits. Let’s get rid of the double standards. Can everything be placed under the cover of academic freedom, including murder incitement?”

Many see the attack on the tiny minority of Israeli academics who support the boycott as just the thin end of the wedge, likely to lead to further attempts by politicians to monitor and control what is said within universities.

“The main problem”, Professor Katz said, “is that the Right is unable to understand that what we are demanding is freedom of expression. Almost none of us are in favour of an academic boycott of Israel, but we are defending the right of Professor Giora and others to advocate this outside the classroom without fear of losing their jobs.

“If the education minister can say that advocating an academic boycott is beyond the pale, then where will we be when he says that it is unacceptable to support conscientious objection…or call the West Bank ‘occupied territory’…or remind students that there is another way of looking at the 1948 War [whose interpretation remains a matter of deep dispute among historians and between Israelis and Palestinians]?

“We can’t let politicians draw any lines at all. We have a perfectly good system of peer review for judging academic contributions within the scholarly setting, and whatever professors say outside the classroom is their own business. The charge that professors are exploiting captive student audiences for political indoctrination is totally baseless.”

Aron Shai, rector-elect of Tel Aviv University, has added his voice to these concerns.

Although he admitted that he has “no idea what our education minister is up to regarding freedom of speech and academic freedom at our universities” and noted that “there are conflicting reports concerning his intentions in this regard”, he emphasised that “freedom of speech has been observed in Israeli universities since the establishment of the state in 1948. I sincerely hope that as an esteemed and enlightened statesman, our education minister will not interfere in the traditional autonomy of the universities and will carry on tolerating it exactly as his predecessors have done.”

He went on: “Indeed, at a recent debate by the Education Committee of the Knesset [Israeli parliament], I made my position clear. I underlined that each and every university is a self-contained community. One can find in each a colourful, pluralistic fabric of academicians, scholars, teachers and researchers. If one seeks supporters of the government, critics of the Cabinet and its policies, dissidents or so-called extremists of the Right and Left, one can certainly find them, in different doses and quantities.”

Shared concerns

Although he is more optimistic, Professor Shai shares Professor Katz’s concerns about the possibility of a “McCarthyite” atmosphere within the Israeli academy.

In the Knesset, he recalled: “I stated quite ironically that we could create an ‘un-Israeli’ activities committee, similar to the House Un-American Activities Committee or the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, but that we should at the same time be aware of the dangerous repercussions of such a move. Would we wish upon ourselves the atmosphere that existed in the United States in the early 1950s?”

Also at stake, suggested Professor Shai, was the need to respect students and treat them as responsible adults.

“When we consider students at Israeli universities,” he noted, “we are not dealing with school pupils or teenagers. We are talking about grown-ups, mature young men and women who have served their country in the army, navy or the air force, citizens who are on average 23 to 25 years old. In my opinion, they are capable of rationally analysing any views they are exposed to, whether these be from the Right or Left, moderate or extreme.

“I further believe that when academic texts are presented in class or assigned as reading material in, say, basic courses in political thought, history, sociology and other such disciplines, a wide spectrum of views should be introduced and taught. This is the correct, honest, scientific approach.

“I made it clear that I objected to a regulative policy introduced or encouraged by some Knesset members relating to any aspect of the higher education system. Regulation by committees or otherwise might lead us towards a slippery slope and would harm not only free speech and freedom of expression, but also the very essence and spirit of research and scientific advancement.”

Despite his eloquently expressed anxieties, Professor Shai said he believes “the present Israeli leadership is not going to resort to such disproven and obsolete policy”.

Others are notably more pessimistic about what lies ahead.

I'm a teacher, writer, and activist based in Bangalore. I am dedicated to various issues including #BDS and Palestine, living Zero Waste, and reversing the effects of climate change.

Posted in Israeli Academia, Why Boycott?!
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