Lock up those 'peaceniks' in the ivory tower

October 17, 2003

David Newman reports on the rise of Israeli McCarthism.

Israel is this year commemorating 30 years since the October 1973 Yom Kippur war. Each of the country's five universities has conferences on the subject and academics are sure to play a big role in all the television and radio debates and newspaper articles that appear in the coming months. Last month marked three years since the beginning of the latest intifada and breakdown in the peace process, and in two months we will commemorate 25 years since the Camp David agreements between Israel and Egypt. All these anniversaries are likely to be used by academics to show the general public that Israel's academic community does not hide away in ivory towers.

But many of these scholars, particularly those who are critical of government policy on social and political issues - such as the debate around the peace process and the treatment of Palestinians - have come under increasing attack since the breakdown of the Oslo agreements and the return to mutual terror and violence. Attempts are being made to silence or delegitimise their views in ways that some view as Israel's own take on McCarthyism.

Israeli politicians often complain that academics are overly involved in public debate about political and social issues, especially when they sign petitions or publish articles that are critical of government policy or support Palestinian rights. Indeed, education minister Limor Livnat has been openly critical of such scholars.

But the attack on left-of-centre views is not limited to politicians. In a 2001 edition of the Middle East Quarterly , an anonymous article named Israel's leftwing academics, labelling them "boisterous radicals" and questioning their academic credentials.

There is growing political division between those academics who support the government's policies and those who are critical. The latter tend to be labelled "liberal" or "leftwing" and are associated with the pro-peace, anti-occupation camp. One reason for this is that a large percentage of members of organisations such as Peace Now are academics. Indeed, the secret negotiations leading up to the Oslo process were instigated and managed by two lecturers at Haifa University, Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundak. Members of the academic faculty continue to be involved in many of the Track II negotiations and in joint research with Palestinian colleagues, much of it funded under international programmes aimed at promoting Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, especially in the field of peace studies.

Both left and right academics are associated with specific research centres. Independent research institutes have been founded to promote specific neo-conservative political discourses. The most well known are the Shalem Institute in Jerusalem, the BeSa (Begin-Sadat) Center for Strategic Studies at the religious Bar Ilan University, and the Judea/Samaria College for Higher Education in the West Bank township of Ariel.

By contrast, there are two major centres for peace studies, the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the Steinmetz Center at Tel Aviv University, both of which promote and support peace-related research. The Givat Haviva Institute also promotes Israeli-Arab dialogue and cooperative research and tends to attract faculty who are pro-peace.

The "peace industry" has become a major source of funding and research activities for many Israeli academics in the post-Oslo period, much of the funding coming from international research agencies (such as the Ford and Rockefeller foundations) or from US or European Union-sponsored programmes, such as People to People and Partnership for Peace.

The only formal grouping of academic faculty in a directly political organisation, however, is the extreme rightwing Professors for a Strong Israel. This was founded in 1988 as a "non-partisan organisation of academics united in a common concern for the security and the Jewish character of the State of Israel", but its activities were expanded after the 1993 signing of the Oslo agreement. It aims "to counter the activities of some leftwing members of the academic community in support of anti-Zionist and post-Zionist political parties". Its members are involved in opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state and support settlement and the policies of successive rightwing governments.

In a case that received much press coverage last year and raised concerns about academic freedom, members of the group attempted unsuccessfully to prevent the appearance of Yossi Beilin, one of the main architects of the Oslo peace process, a former government minister and a former history professor at Tel Aviv University, from delivering a public lecture at Ben Gurion University. In a recent lecture marking ten years since the Oslo peace process, Aryeh Zaritsky, a leading member of Professors for a Strong Israel, accused pro-peace academics of being "auto anti-Semites" and of "selling away the essential assets and interests of Israel's survival".

A September posting on the group's website by scientist Yoram Shifftan makes clear the kind of approach the group takes to academics with whom it does not agree. He writes: "Not only are there fewer and fewer Israelis who know the facts so that they can explain them to foreigners, but the phenomena of self-hatred, refusal to serve, lack of motivation and the belief that the state was born in sin multiply. It is in this receptive atmosphere that, for example, Jewish-Israeli academics in Oxford and elsewhere, including Israel, publish books about how strong and well-equipped we were in 1948 in comparison to the Arab foe. They claim it was Israel that refused the 1947 division recommendation by the UN. This is a complete Orwellian inversion of the truth and is promulgated by those (principally Jewish) who are supposed to be the gatekeepers of the truth.

The process is made easier because practitioners in the art of deceit are labelled 'progressive', 'liberal', 'moderate' and 'peace camp'. This self-destructive process is autocatalytic, whereby deliberate mischief, innocent ignorance, physical intimidation and buying opinions feed and mutually amplify each other. It really pays to be anti-Israel."

Bearing the brunt of the current wave of attacks are academics such as Barukh Kimmerling at the Hebrew University and Oren Yiftachel at Ben Gurion University (ironically the subject of a boycott attempt by a leading international journal last year because he is Israeli) who posit Israel as a "state of all its citizens" rather than a nationally defined Jewish state in which one national/religious group enjoys preferential status. Their more global approach has been criticised by traditionalists, left and right. In some cases, rightwing academics and media polemicists have "named" these so-called anti-state academics and accuse them of accepting research funding from anti-Israel organisations, including the European Community.

Such forms of attack, although on the rise, are not new. Indeed a decade ago, Arnon Soffer, professor of geography at Haifa University, attacked Israeli-Jewish and Israeli-Arab geographers for having undertaken joint academic research, recommending that their academic peers expel them from their professional organisation, the Israel Geographical Association. In a later lecture, at the annual conference of the IGA, Soffer labelled the liberal geographers as being no more than "pen mercenaries" in the service of foreign interests.

But, despite the attacks, Israel still enjoys a relatively open public and academic debate, and the academic promotion system is free of any direct political intervention, although young faculty have been known to tone down their political stances before they have achieved tenure. Nevertheless, recent talk of an international academic boycott has been used by nationalist and self-appointed guardians of Israeli patriotism as another weapon to wield against critics of Israeli government policies and serves only to weaken the cause of liberal and/or post-peace critiques. Such academic activity deserves to be supported, not shunned, by the international academic community if it wants to support those Israeli academics who have an alternative view on the way forward.

David Newman is professor of political geography in the department of politics and government at Ben Gurion University and editor of Geopolitics .

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