Academic witch-hunt or a digital defence? 2

December 17, 2004

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

"Are you a donor to Israeli universities?" the anonymous writer asks.

"Learn what is happening on Israeli campuses. Be informed about what is being done with your gifts and generosity."

These are the opening lines to a dangerous new website called Israel Academia Monitor. Presenting itself as a human rights movement of sorts, it declares that its aim is to bring to light abuses of academic freedom.

Its nameless perpetrators consider themselves to be not only defenders of free speech but anti-McCarthyist campaigners.

The McCarthyists here are Israeli professors such as myself who are critical of Israel's rights-abusive policies while being inspired by a deep concern for Israel's population and Palestinians whose homelands are occupied.

Apparently, our offence against free speech is that we do not allow zealous nationalists to voice their views - an absurd allegation considering that for some years now the balance of power within Israel has been tilted firmly towards the right.

At first sight, only a twisted logic augmented by historical ignorance could draw a parallel between relatively powerless academics and those well orchestrated, government-sanctioned red-baiters of Fifties America.

Indeed, the Monitor's instigators would have failed introductory courses of both logic and 20th-century history.

In this corner of cyberspace, the law of contradiction - that antithetical P and not-P cannot be true simultaneously - ceases to exist, allowing the site to intimate that donors should boycott all universities that employ professors who criticise state policies while at the same time denouncing those who favour a boycott of Israeli institutions.

But in reality, those behind the Monitor are accusing Israeli academics of McCarthyism to deflect criticism from the web inquisitors themselves as they set about exploiting fear.

The site is a bathetic attempt to copy Campus Watch, which was launched in 2002 to police and discipline those US university academics who criticised their country's policies in the Middle East and Israel's occupation.

It dedicates a page to each major Israeli university, listing "extremist professors" who promote "insurrection and lawbreaking" and collaborate with "anti-Semites and enemies of Israel".

An innocent reader could be forgiven for thinking that Hamas terrorist cells led by rogue professors were operating within Israeli universities, preparing students for the jihad.

The Monitor might have been just a tasteless joke if the times were not ripe for this kind of witch-hunt, if it were not symptomatic of a more general and ominous mood informed by a nationalistic and sectarian frenzy.

The site's authors encourage students and scholars to pass on information about suspect professors. They promise to publish incriminating material.

The goal, it seems, is to influence hiring and tenure decisions, to purge Israeli universities of those who dare question the state.

This assault, however, is aimed not only at academic freedom but at democracy itself.

For the danger confronting contemporary democracy is not some new wave of overt authoritarianism, as it was in the early and mid-20th century. It is not even terrorism.

Rather, the danger comes from those for whom the freedoms that accompany democracy represent a threat, an obstacle to their uninhibited pursuit of dominance and wealth.

Like its forerunner Campus Watch, Israel Academia Monitor is indicative of the much broader attempt to silence all those who confront the powers that be.

Neve Gordon is professor of politics at Ben-Gurion University and is a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.

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