Why I ... urge academics to support Israeli academics' right to free expression

April 30, 2004

According to reports in last week's Haaretz newspaper, Israel's academic freedom is in danger of being trampled on by politicians. These were sparked in part by the decision by Limor Livnat, the minister of education, not to attend the annual meeting of the board of governors of Ben Gurion University next month because she objected to the views expressed by a member of faculty in an article that was published in Belgium and in which he used the term "symbolic Holocaust" to describe Israel's policies of targeting and assasinating Hamas leaders.

At the same time as Livnat's views became public, Neve Gordon, a lecturer known for his leftwing views and critique of the policies of the present Israeli government, brought a libel action against Stephen Plaut, a lecturer at Haifa University, after Plaut refused to retract statements accusing him of being a "fanatic anti-Semite", a "Judenrat wannabe" and a "groupie of the world's leading Holocaust denier".

These are not isolated incidents, they are part of a much bigger campaign that has been growing alarmingly over the past three years. Leftwing academics have become the target of neo-conservative attacks - in Israel and the US. Many of these attacks have appeared as letters addressed to university supporters or the general public, or in articles that have been published indiscriminately on websites, many of which have affiliations to extreme rightwing organisations.

Academics have been accused of being anti-Israeli and, in many cases, of feeding anti-Semitism. Letters have been sent to US supporters of Israeli universities urging them to withdraw financial support from institutions that employ "treasonous" faculty, as well as to university presidents and rectors in Israel, urging them to intervene in the promotion process of these individuals. So far universities have defended academic freedom.

Much of this campaign has grown out of the McCarthyist Campus Watch organisation set up by Daniel Pipes, which asks students to sit in on lectures at US campuses and "report" all forms of critique that are considered unacceptable by the self-appointed guardians of neo-conservative post-9/11 political correctness. This has spread to Israeli campuses, with rightwing views escaping the political scrutiny and attack directed at leftwing opinions.

This McCarthyism is not divorced from the structural reforms that are taking place in Israeli higher education, which the government is forcing on university senates. Their implementation will make higher education in Israel far less democratic, transferring decision-making powers from faculty (we elect our own heads of departments, faculty deans and even rectors and vice-chancellors) to appointed committees made up of part faculty and part public and political figures.

Non-academic personnel would then be allowed to intervene in the hiring and promotion processes of individual staff (today, the promotion committees are made up of academic faculty alone and are autonomous) if they believed that the expressed political views of individuals were not to their liking or were causing international support of, and financial donations to, the institution to fall away.

Instead of pouring its energies into a futile academic boycott of Israel - a boycott opposed by the large majority of both left and rightwing Israeli academics - the international academic community should be expressing concern about these blatant attempts by the neo-conservatives and self-appointed "super patriots" to intervene in the academic process.

Intellectuals should take active steps to support the right of all academics to free expression, to defend themselves against libel, and to engage in their normal activities without fear that the stating of their political positions will jeopardise their professional future.

David Newman
Professor of political geography
Department of politics and government
Ben Gurion University in Israel
and editor of Geopolitics journal

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