Academic witch-hunt or a digital defence? 1

December 17, 2004

Does the monitoring of left-wing Israeli scholars help or hinder democracy? Neve Gordon sees danger, Steven Plaut a watchdog

A new spectre is haunting the far-left fever swamps that fester in certain corners of Israeli universities. Israel Academia Monitor, like its American cousin Campus Watch, has begun recording the more outrageous words of academic extremists.

The US website has long been controversial for publishing some of the loopier statements of faculty members who pose as Middle East "experts".

Campus Watch has outraged members of the academic left wing, who denounce it for its "McCarthyism". Now the Israeli Academia Monitor (www.israel-academia-monitor.com) has aroused similar outrage and denunciations.

Of course, critics of the Israeli academic left have been attacked for some time. David Newman, professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University, complained in The Times Higher in April about right-wing McCarthyists attempting to suppress academic "diversity". This from a man whose department does not include one non-leftist.

Free speech is indeed what the hysteria is all about.

The attacks on both the Monitor and Campus Watch come from people who insist on the right to endorse terrorist attacks against Jews, demand the annihilation of Israel and use their podiums to impose their extremist political agenda on their hapless students.

All of this, they claim, is within the rubric of free speech and academic freedom. But then they try to silence those people who criticise them.

Those being documented by the website watchdogs complain that it is an attempt to deny them free speech. Poppycock! These websites are just collections of direct citations published by the extremists in question.

True, the Monitor expresses the desire for donors to the universities to review the material and make their views heard regarding the political misbehaviour of faculty members. What is wrong with donors also having the freedom of expression?

No one is denying academic freedom to the extremists, even though there are serious questions as to whether their words always fall within the bounds of what should be legitimately protected, especially in a time of war against annihilation by Arab fascism. Oswald Mosley was not granted an academic lectureship as a celebration of free speech when Winston Churchill was Prime Minister during the Second World War.

And I doubt there are any European countries in which an open Holocaust denier could hold a university post.

So academic freedom does seem to have its boundaries.

But this is not even on the agenda in Israel. Despite laws against open endorsement of terrorist violence and racism, no leftist has ever been indicted under such legislation.

Many of the left-wing extremists on Israeli campuses have embarrassing academic records, consisting of little more than political propaganda misrepresented as scholarly research.

Yet they stay in the system thanks to the political solidarity of other academic leftists.

Let us be clear. Israeli campus extremists have never had their free speech curtailed.

But there is a difference between affirming their rights to academic freedom and insisting that others have to foot the bills for their politicising.

Israeli universities are all, with one exception, state financed, with foreign donors covering what the taxpayer does not.

Both parties have the right to demand accountability and resist being coerced into financing sedition and radicalism.

Those university departments that wish to function as leftist propaganda machines are free to secede and operate independently without taxpayer support.

Steven Plaut is professor of economics at Haifa University. He writes in a personal capacity.

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