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[This article is reprinted from the Fall 2011 issue of Middle East Quarterly.]
Israel is under assault from within, and not just from the usual suspects. Its legitimacy and, in many cases, its very existence are being attacked by a domestic academic Fifth Column. Hundreds of professors and lecturers, employed by Israel’s state-financed universities, are building careers as full-time activists working against the very country in which they live. And the problem is growing. Fortunately, the Israeli public has become aware of the problem and is increasingly demanding that something be done about it. A not-inconsiderable part of the credit for this belongs to the Middle East Quarterly, probably the first serious journal to discuss the problem a decade ago, sparking a debate that continues to challenge the Israeli academy’s offensive against the Jewish state.
“Socrates” Blows the Whistle
In fall 2001, the Middle East Quarterly ran a major exposé of anti-Israel academics based inside Israeli universities. Titled “Israel’s Academic Extremists,” it shattered the conspiracy of silence that had long been observed in the Israeli media and on Israeli campuses about scholars working against their own country and in support of its enemies. And it opened a floodgate.
The article was attributed to “Solomon Socrates,” described as “the pen name for a watchdog team of researchers keeping an eye on Israel’s universities.” The very fact that the authors felt they needed the cloak of anonymity to protect themselves from retaliation from their colleagues within higher education may have been the most dramatic illustration of the sorry state of academic freedom and pluralism in Israel’s universities.
Noting that hiring and promotion procedures at Israeli universities were commonly politicized, with leftist faculty who had poor academic publication records getting hired and promoted as acts of political solidarity, the article offered thumbnail characterizations of about two dozen Israeli academic extremists. Today that list seems tame and thin, at least when compared with the dimensions of the problem as it is now understood. A few of the names were of obscure academicians of little interest, evidently spotlighted as a result of some outlandish statements and positions. Two of those named, Benny Morris and Ilan Gur-Ze’ev, would no longer make the list and are generally considered today to be important defenders of Zionism and critics of “post-Zionist” historical revisionism of which they were once key articulators. Morris appears to have jettisoned most of his earlier Israel-bashing and New History revisionism regarding the period of Israel’s war of independence, though not everyone is persuaded the rehabilitation is sincere. As a result he has become the favorite whipping boy for much of the anti-Zionist Left, incensed that he no longer spends his days denouncing Israel as the ultimate evil in the world. In February 2010, Morris was even denied the right to speak at a Cambridge University student event on the grounds that he was too pro-Israel and thus supposedly anti-Arab. In June 2011 he was physically attacked by anti-Israel activists while on his way to lecture in the London School of Economics. Gur-Ze’ev, meanwhile, has been speaking out forcefully against the anti-Semitism and totalitarian inclinations of the radical Left, to the chagrin of those who oppose him.
From Socrates’ 2001 list, Baruch Kimmerling, Dan Bar-On, and Israel Shahak are no longer alive while Ilan Pappé and Gabriel Piterberg have emigrated and built careers elsewhere as full-time Israel bashers. The remaining names have, however, been joined by scores, perhaps hundreds, of home-grown academic bashers of Israel over the past decade.
The Internal War against Israel
Most of Israel’s anti-Israel academics hold tenured faculty positions at the country’s tax-funded public universities. They include people who justify and celebrate Arab terrorism and who help initiate campaigns of boycott and economic divestment directed against their own country in time of war. Today many of the leaders of the so-called BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions [against Israel]) are Israeli academics. The phenomenon is near pandemic at the four main Israeli liberal arts universities: Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University, the University of Haifa, and Ben-Gurion University. At the two scientific-engineering institutions, the Technion and the Weizmann Institute, there are small numbers of faculty involved in such political activity but they are a minor presence, and this is also true of the religious university, Bar-Ilan. Israeli colleges are less generously funded by the government than universities and so are more dependent on competing for student tuition. This may explain why extremist faculty is more unusual there than in universities, though Sapir College in the Negev may be an exception.
On the eve of the 2003 Iraq war, dozens of Israeli academics warned the world that Israel was planning massive war crimes and genocidal massacres against the Palestinians the moment the first coalition troops were to land in Iraq. When the actual fighting took place and no such crimes were perpetrated by Israel, not a single signer of the petition issued an apology for the smears against the Jewish state.
In other petitions, Israeli academics routinely denounce Israel for carrying out war crimes and human rights violations. In some, they call for suppressing Israeli sovereignty by imposing political solutions on the country that they favor but which are opposed by the vast majority of Israelis. Hundreds of Israeli university professors have been involved in organizing mutiny and insurrection among Israeli soldiers, and some have been arrested for violently attacking police and soldiers or for similar forms of law breaking. For example, Tel Aviv University’s Anat Matar, the Hebrew University’s Amiel Vardi, math lecturer Kobi Snitz (who has taught at several institutions), and others have been arrested for lawbreaking and for participating in violent, illegal demonstrations. At least one faculty member at Ben Gurion University has openly called for murder of those who reject his far-leftist opinions. The Israeli university authorities wink at such behavior and sometimes even collaborate with and promote it.
Scores of Israeli academics openly advocate the so-called Palestinian right of return, which would effectively end Israel’s existence, while others openly call for Israel to be annihilated altogether. Other Israeli academics signed the so-called Olga document demanding that Israel grant the Palestinians an unrestricted “right of return.” Such people often claim to favor a “one-state solution,” in which Israel’s existence as a sovereign nation would end, to be enfolded within a larger state with an Arab and Muslim government and majority. A few Israeli academics even campaign on behalf of and promote Holocaust deniers. Articles by Ben-Gurion University’s Neve Gordon have been published on the web site of Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel and in Iran’s state newspaper. Neve has also endorsed Norman Finkelstein, often regarded as a Holocaust denier or at least a Holocaust trivializer while other Israeli academics have praised Holocaust revisionist David Irving.
During the Cast Lead military operation against Hamas in Gaza (winter 2008-09), the visibility of this group grew. While polls showed near-unanimous support for the operations among Israeli Jews, a high proportion of Israeli academics opposed the operation. The Hebrew University professor of linguistic education, Nurit Elhanan-Peled, has devoted much of her career to promoting the political agenda of the very same Palestinian terrorists who murdered her own daughter in a suicide bombing of a civilian Israeli bus. Many anti-Israel academics cheered on Hamas as it launched rockets at the civilians in Israel’s south. Others publicly endorsed Hezbollah’s “legitimate resistance,” when northern Israel was showered by Katyusha rockets during the summer war of 2006. Some are currently among the leaders of marches that call upon the world to prevent Jews from living in neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, where, they believe, Jews just do not belong.
The Dershowitz Counterattack
Probably the most dramatic exhibition of the problem came at the national assembly of the governors of Tel Aviv University (TAU) in the spring of 2010. The keynote speaker invited to the affair was Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. While left of center, Dershowitz is passionately pro-Israel and, at the same time, vehemently opposed to infringements upon academic freedom.
Upon receiving an honorary doctoral degree at Tel Aviv University, Dershowitz gave a dramatic speech denouncing the home-grown, anti-Israel cadre of lecturers dominating Israeli universities. He defended the rights of these academics to exercise freedom of speech—or, in his words, the “right to be wrong.” But he also defended the rights of others to denounce and criticize them.
In no time, Dershowitz confronted the all-too-common refrain sounded by these scholars that they are only engaging in legitimate criticism of Israel. To the contrary, Dershowitz contended, these people were actually often engaged in delegitimizing Israel itself, calling for world boycotts against the Jewish state, and at times calling for its annihilation. They go so far, he stated, as to organize boycott campaigns by recruiting and leading teams of anti-Israel radicals. ] Dershowitz then named several Tel Aviv University faculty, including some who were in Boston that same week attempting to organize a boycott against the Technion, Israel’s main engineering university, for supposedly being a cog in the Israeli “war machine.”
Without naming names, Dershowitz heaped scorn on TAU professor Shlomo Sand for his recent book, The Invention of the Jewish People, which claims that there is actually no such thing as a Jewish people. Dershowitz went on to denounce those who insist that freedom of speech belongs only to people who agree with them and assailed those at Israeli universities who harass students who dare to disagree with forced-fed ideology, comparing this behavior to teachers who sexually harass students. He insisted that students too are entitled to academic freedom, which includes the right to disagree with their professors.
While such a peroration would ignite controversy anywhere, it was downright incendiary at Tel Aviv University (TAU), arguably home to the greatest concentration of tenured leftists teaching in Israel. While the audience repeatedly interrupted him with loud applause, faculty members reportedly squirmed in their seats.
It did not take long for these academics to open fire in retaliation; within days, a group of TAU professors denounced Dershowitz and challenged his right to criticize them. Signatures for a petition were collected and published on a left-wing website. The petition essentially denied Dershowitz’s right to freedom of speech, despite the pretence of some signatories to the contrary, by deriding his charges against specific academics as “bordering on incitement that can pose a clear and present danger to these members of staff.”
A quick look at the names on the petition illustrates the nature of the problem. Among the signatories claiming that Dershowitz’s words criticizing the anti-Israel camp reminded them of “the dark regimes” in human history were:
Chaim Gans of TAU law school, who organized a petition demanding that Col. Pnina Baruch-Sharvit, head of the Israel Defense Forces international law division, be prevented from teaching a course in the school after her retirement from military service because her department (allegedly) legitimized strikes in which civilians were hurt or killed during Operation Cast Lead.
Gadi Algazi, a historian at TAU who, among other activities, led a march of Israeli Arabs supporting Hezbollah terror.
Uri Hadar, a psychology professor, who recently organized a conference at TAU to support Hamas and Hezbollah.
Daniel Bar-Tal, an educational psychologist, who produces anti-Jewish propaganda for the U.N. and believes Zionism is an obstacle to peace.
The Attack against Freedom of Speech
As starkly demonstrated by the anti- Dershowitz petition, Israel’s tenured radicals are not only vehemently anti-Israel but also staunchly anti-democratic. For them, academic freedom and freedom of speech means absolute protection of the right to “criticize” Israel but not to defend it.
McCarthyism has become the favorite rhetorical bludgeon wielded by Israeli academics to deny their critics the freedom of speech. This McCarthyism, they charge, endangers freedom of speech and democracy. So tenured academics should have the sacrosanct right to denounce and demonize all of Israel and also to smear non-leftist Israelis, including private citizens such as army officers, in the most lurid and vulgar ways. But those who respond by criticizing these critics are endangering democracy. In particular, the radical academics have denounced the watchdog web sites that monitor and cite what they say, as well as the Zionist student organization Im Tirtzu (“If you will it”) and Knesset members who have criticized the behavior of the radicals. In the strange world of Israeli academic radicals, the worst offense against academic freedom is the verbatim citing of what they actually say or write.
Some professors, most notoriously David Newman, dean of social sciences and humanities at Ben-Gurion University,  and Daniel Bar-Tal of the School of Education at Tel Aviv University, have published calls for the suppression and silencing of critics. The president of TAU censored Mark Tanenbaum , a governor of his own university’s board, when the latter proposed an investigation into professors who use the school’s name and funds when participating in forums of political nature—behavior that is incidentally barred by the university’s own bylaws. The Israeli media have also reported a growing number of demands from academics that the freedom of expression of their critics, and for that matter—of scholars deviating from politically correct dogmas—be suppressed.
Thus, for example, when Yeruham Leavitt was teaching a class in medical ethics at Ben-Gurion University, he questioned the assertion that children raised by homosexual couples experience no adverse effects. For this he was not only fired for “unacceptable thinking,” but the president of Ben-Gurion University, Rivka Carmi, went out of her way to defend the firing. On the other hand, when a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University, Eyal Ben-Ari, was accused by several female students of having raped and sexually molested them, the university at first circled the wagons around him and only years later suspended him for two years without pay.
Tel Aviv University faculty members have participated in protests demanding that the campus Center for Iranian Studies be shut down because radical faculty members said they feared its work could assist the United States and Israel in confronting Tehran. The radicals also opposed allowing an Israel ex-general to speak there. A few years back some radical faculty protested against the opening of a campus synagogue, claiming its presence on campus would contribute to “religious coercion” and suppression of “religious pluralism.” Obviously no student would be coerced into attending religious ceremony at the synagogue. But the absence of a synagogue before this one was opened did not strike the radical faculty members as infringing upon student freedom of expression and religion. In 2008, the student union at Tel Aviv University wanted to hold an exhibit protesting human rights abuses in China, but university officials ordered it shut down lest it offend Chinese diplomats. Meanwhile, TAU has repeatedly hosted events organized by the Israeli Communist Party, held in campus facilities.
Academics from all across the country are now calling for a boycott of Ariel University Center in Samaria because it is located across the “Green Line.” There have been no petitions though to eliminate politicized programs of ideological indoctrination run by the radical Left inside many university departments. There have been petitions by left-wing faculty members to eliminate university programs for Israeli army officers, intelligence service officers, and police, as well as petitions to bar army officers from holding academic positions. Similarly, a group of University of Haifa faculty from its school of education organized a petition to demand that army officers be barred from speaking in schools.
All too often, university administrations have colluded with this mindset. When Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University filed a harassment “strategic lawsuit against public participation” (SLAPP) lawsuit against this author for criticizing his public, political activities and writings, he was backed by the highest officials at the university. These evidently see nothing amiss with such attempts at suppressing freedom of speech for other academics who happen to dislike Gordon’s extremist opinions.
Hiring for Uniformity in Thought
The Israeli campus has become thoroughly politicized with faculty hiring and promotion decisions subordinated to political bias. As noted in the 2001 MEQ article, scholars with mediocre academic records are often hired and promoted as acts of solidarity with the Left. There have also been allegations of malicious blocking and sabotaging of the academic careers of those with political views on the Right. Israeli academics recruited through this politicized process have misused their podiums to impose courses consisting of anti-Israel libel and venom on students.
The manner in which this ideological hegemony is maintained over campuses is well known within the Israeli academic institutions, even if the corruption has rarely been aired publicly. Consider a typical hiring or promotion procedure for an academic whose publication record consists mainly, or exclusively, of propaganda articles that bash Israel. Evaluation procedures are typically corrupted and politicized: An evaluation committee for the candidate is appointed, consisting entirely of like-minded faculty members who then typically requests assessments from eight to ten “referees” from Israel and around the world. But all, or nearly all, of the referee letter-writers will themselves have identical anti-Israel sympathies and can generally be counted upon to write glowing letters of support out of a sense of political solidarity. Ben-Gurion University seems to be the most accomplished institution in such practices.
Faculty chat lists in which Israeli professors post comments, especially in the social sciences, are invariably dominated by the self-defined “progressives.” The author was personally summoned by a rector of the University of Haifa, Yossi Ben Artzi, and threatened with disciplinary actions for using sarcasm in response to “bash-Israel” postings placed on the local professors’ chat list. The “Israel Social Science” chat list is routinely censored to limit postings critical of the Left while ideological postings by anti-Israel faculty members suffer from no such handicap and dominate the list. For example, an ideological article by the left-leaning Hebrew University professor Yitzhak Galnoor attacking the exercise of academic freedom by critics of leftists in Israeli universities was posted on the list, while list manager David Levi-Faur refused to permit any response to it to appear.
Would-be non-leftist faculty can clearly see the political writing on the wall. They must choose either to toe the political line out of career self-interest or to muzzle themselves and maintain a low profile, at least until they reach senior academic ranks and often after that as well. Thus political uniformity and the campus hegemony are perpetuated.
Abuses inside the Classroom
Israeli administrators have long turned a blind eye to anti-Israel courses which are often mandatory for students. They have ignored growing reports that students are being harassed and penalized by faculty members when they dare to disagree with faculty political opining and indoctrination. When the Im Tirtzu movement issued reports documenting classroom intimidation and indoctrination of students, they were denounced by scores of faculty members and by the rectors at Ben-Gurion University, University of Haifa, and Tel Aviv University as McCarthyists and fascists.
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