Israeli Academic Freedom in Peril

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The concept of human rights is even more controversial. For the ultra-nationalist students and organizations, the term “human rights” symbolizes one-sided support for the Palestinians and subversive attempts to destroy the state. The liberal universalism that underlies human rights values is anathema to a parochial notion of state, and clashes with the creeping raison d’etat.

Therefore, a human rights conference planned by the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University in early April was a white-hot target for the nationalists. Im Tirtzu launched a well-orchestrated campaign  to pressure university president Professor Rivka Carmi to cancel the conference, on the pretense that it was not “balanced.” Dr. Dani Filc, the Department chair, responded that seven right wing speakers had been invited but declined to come. Still the demands continued, reaching University officials, Minister of Education Gideon Saar, the chair of the Knesset’s Education Committee, Alex Miller (Israel Beitenu). The conference was held as planned.

In this charged environment, Dr Neve Gordon agreed to be interviewed for +972.

Dr Gordon was chair of the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University for much of this controversial period. He is the author of Israel’s Occupation and an outspoken critic of Israel’s government policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. 0

[Question] Ben Gurion University has been in the eye of the storm. What has been the situation at Ben Gurion University over the last year?

[Answer] There’s an assault on Israeli academia in general. It involves an alliance between forces such as IsraCampus and Israel Academic Monitor on the one hand, who try to convince donors to stop giving money to universities that harbour leftists, and Im Tirzu, which tries to mobilize government ministers and Members of Knesset to pressure the top university executives to discipline recalcitrant academics. There’s an alliance between elements in civil society, a handful of donors and the government to stifle academic freedom and criticism of Israeli policy. The phenomenon is not only in the academic sphere – it also includes, for example, the attacks on the human rights organizations in Israel.

As I understand it, the assault has a twofold objective. The idea is to prevent the flow of information from Israel abroad, and because both academics and the Israeli human rights community have strong networks outside of Israel they are the one’s currently targeted. Simultaneously, there is an attempt to stifle internal debate, by reducing and limiting discussions about policies that lead to social wrongs and more violence and aggression.

[Q] Have they succeeded?

To a certain extent, yes. We are seeing a totally new phenomenon in Israeli academia: students sitting in class, filming the classes and then passing information on to the monitor groups and the media. The recordings are almost always edited, so the information doesn’t reflect what really went on in class.

Such students consider themselves to be class monitors , rather than  people who have come to the university in order to study, broaden their horizon and expand their knowledge. Not unlike the McCarthy era in the US, some Israeli student see themselves as agents of the state, as spies.

[Q] Do you mean they’re not coming to class truly to learn, but rather to get affirmation for their opinions?

[A] Some are open-minded and some are less so… We are blessed with excellent students; I think the student qua spy is still a small minority. But they definitely exist.

Another issue is foreign donors. Donations are a relatively small percentage of the budget, often 10 per cent or less. Yet the donors wield immense influence… The monitors send information to donors in the US or England and a handful of these donors send letters to university administrations pressuring them to stifle academic freedom.

So, there are attacks from Knesset and from foreign donors, and the mechanism of academic monitors feeds both.

[Q] What about Israeli donors?

[A] There are very few. But I believe they would be less influenced, because the sphere of legitimate discourse is still much broader inside Israel, when it comes to criticizing government policy.

[Q] What has been the impact of those civil society campaigns?

[A] It’s hard to judge in the short term, but I believe we’ll see that they’ve succeeded a great deal in the long term.

Up to now, they haven’t managed to get anyone fired from the universities, because we still have a tenure system. But they’ve created gatekeepers. It’s becoming increasingly impossible to hire people who are critical of the Israeli government, or who have signed a [critical] petition… If [potential candidates] know this in advance, they will stop expressing their opinions and if they do decide to speak out, it will be more difficult for them to get hired… Not only the IsraCampus monitors but also politicians, the media and university administrators now agree that it’s OK for students to film lecturers in class and to monitor what petitions they sign… That’s a great success for those movements.

It’s extremely disturbing, because the student doesn’t understand his or her role in the university, and sees him or herself as an uncritical agent of the state… Ultimately, the criticism is internalized, and many lecturers think twice for fear of speaking their opinions.

The right turns the whole notion of academic freedom on its head – they say that people like me are the ones who stifle free speech. I find the implication that we control the discourse in Israel to be ludicrous. All one needs to do is turn on the television or read a newspaper. People who think like me are on the margins and their views are rarely heard in the mainstream media.

[Q] What about the frequent accusation of groups such as Im Tirtzu that right-wing political opinions aren’t accepted or are penalized?

[A] The two last editors of Ben Gurion’s Department of Politics and Government student newspaper were [involved with] ImTirzu. The people who protested against the human rights conference were members of our department. I’m proud they feel comfortable doing this, knowing they won’t be penalized. [The idea that their opinions are stifled] is a lie that certain activists are disseminating to the press… The department and Ben Gurion University has proven itself open to a plethora of viewpoints.

But those who assault academic freedom don’t really want to debate, they want to attack. They don’t want to appear at our conferences – we invited people who represent the other side and they declined to come… Knesset members, donors and protesters demanded that our human rights conference will be “balanced” by including people who are against human rights. The whole notion of “balanced” is now being used as a weapon against the left. If there’s a conference on Darwin we do not need to invite creationists. For a Holocaust conference we should not be inviting Holocaust deniers – although one could claim that in the name of balance we would have to. Why, one might ask, should we invite people who are against human rights? We need to ask ourselves in which countries are human rights conferences criticized? Iran, China, Syria. – are these the countries we want to follow?

The radical right wants to create a situation whereby only its views heard. The recent request to suspend me from teaching required courses is extremely telling. [A few weeks ago, Kadima MK Otniel Schneller wrote to Alex Miller (Israel Beitenu), Chair of the Knesset’s Education, Culture and Sports Committee, demanding that “at the very least, Gordon be prevented from teaching required courses that would force students to hear his defamatory views.”] (Hebrew).

[Q] How have other universities in Israel reacted?

[A] Lecturers have coordinated to sign petitions [against such attacks], and there have been some discussions. But there isn’t really any organized, strategic or concerted attempt to deal with the phenomenon.

[Q] Why is this happening now?

[A] Universities are not islands, they are part of Israeli society, and the attack on academic freedom merely reflects the more  general attack on liberal values. The attacks on human rights organizations, the fact that the education minister wants to erase democracy and citizenship studies from the curricula and replace it with Zionism and Judaism and the spate of racist and anti-democratic legislation going on in the Knesset, as well as the recent poll of youth attitudes, are all part of the same trend in Israeli society.

[Q] Do you fear for the future of Israeli democracy?

[A] We don’t need to imagine a dark future, we’re already there. Democracy is severely curtailed, we’re on a dark path, and unless something radical changes, unless a miracle happens, I think that within not so many years, the last remnants of Israeli democracy might be lost. The pattern may still change, but if the youth polls are correct, Knesset legislation in the future will be even worse. Democracy will be destroyed.

[Q] What should academics do about this?

[A] I’m not sure it’s the role of academics to change society. People should speak out in support of democracy and criticize undemocratic elements, but not necessarily through academia. Civil society movements should lead… Academics  are not only academics, they are also something else, they are also members of civil society. And as members of civil society, academics need to struggle for social justice, locally and nationally.

[Q] What is the role of university in society?

[A] I think it has three major roles. One is the search for truth and knowledge. The second is to teach student how to think critically. The third role is to educate the students to be good citizens. Our role is not to try to convince students of our views; when we do that we become didactic, rather than encouraging critical thinking we encourage dogma. We want them to be independent thinkers; not to tell them what to think.

A version of this article was originally published in +972 Magazine.
The version here is published by permission of Neve Gordon.

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