Dr. Ilan Pappe. "I had six supporters in the university. Now I'll have
two." (Nir Kafri)
Alone on the barricades
By Meron Rapoport, Haaretz, Fri., May 06, 2005
The shock wave that hit Israeli academia last week, in wake of the
boycott declared by Britain's Association of University Teachers
(AUT) against Haifa and Bar-Ilan Universities, found Dr. Ilan
Pappe, the Israeli protagonist in the whole uproar, on a trip to
Thailand. With his wife and two children, Pappe was climbing
mountains, riding elephants and whitewater rafting. Only when he
returned to his quiet home in Tivon on the weekend did he begin to
understand the magnitude of the fuss. On his answering machine, he
found at least a dozen death threats. "We're from the Russian
mafia," said one voice. "We'll come to whack you." "We'll get
Yigal Amir out on furlough - and not so he can be with Larisa,"
But despite the trip to Thailand ("People were sure that I'd run
away. They didn't believe that I'd planned the trip a year
before," he says), the AUT's decision didn't really catch Pappe by
surprise. In fact, he had been in continuous contact with the
association and regularly updated his friends in it about his
confrontations with Haifa University (its harassment of him,
according to Pappe; Pappe's lies, according to the university's
president), and knew that they were about to make a decision.
Pappe actually supported a sweeping boycott of Israeli academia,
as he wrote in an article in the British daily The Guardian a few
days before the AUT made its decision. In the end, the
organization decided to call upon its 40,000 members to boycott
Bar-Ilan University because of its ties with Ariel College and
Haifa University because of its harassment of Pappe and Teddy
Katz, a master's student who wrote a thesis containing testimonies
about a massacre in Tantura in May 1948. Pappe - unlike what has
been written in many places - was not Katz's thesis adviser, but
he came to his aid after veterans of the Alexandroni Brigade filed
a libel suit against Katz.
Pappe wasn't very popular among the Haifa University faculty
before the AUT decision, and now that's all the more true. The
university's president, Prof. Aharon Ben-Ze'ev, has called on him
to leave the university and "to implement the boycott" that he
supports himself. Members of the faculty are organizing to boycott
him in the hallways and not to speak to him.
Even among the faculty members affiliated with leftist circles,
it's hard to find anyone ready to defend Pappe. "He's spitting in
the well from which he drinks," was the reaction of several
lecturers. The head of his department, Dr. Uri Bar-Yosef, who
describes himself as a personal friend of Pappe's, wrote to The
Guardian that "there is no basis" for Pappe's claims against the
Outside the university walls, some have even called Pappe a real
traitor, a public enemy. In Maariv, Ben-Dror Yemini called him
"one of the biggest new anti-Semites," no less. "If he's coming
toward you on the street, cross to the other sidewalk. Don't sit
next to him on public transportation. Don't exchange a word with
him, good or bad. Treat him as Jews throughout the generations
treated those who removed themselves from the community," wrote
Erel Segal, also in Maariv. "Just do not do him any physical harm,
In an interview at his home in Tivon, Pappe says that he is
"perplexed" as to why the British professors used him as a reason
to impose a boycott on Haifa University, since he would have
preferred a more general declaration. Perplexed, but unapologetic.
Pappe thinks that a boycott should be imposed on Israeli academia,
but not because of him; he's just an excuse, a tactical ploy on
the part of the British professors ("a legitimate ploy," he says).
A general boycott is necessary because there is a moral imperative
to end the occupation and only outside pressure, like the pressure
that was exerted on the apartheid regime in South Africa, can
perhaps achieve this. And why academia? Because Israeli academia,
in Pappe's view, is also a mouthpiece of the establishment and is
used to enable Israel to present itself abroad as "the only
democracy in the Middle East." Therefore, he believes, it is both
permissible and ethical to impose a boycott on it.
Beyond the basic struggle, Pappe's personal battle with Haifa
University could be called "the battle for Tantura." Teddy Katz, a
master's degree student in the university's Middle East Studies
department, submitted a thesis on "The Exodus of the Arabs from
Villages at the Foot of Southern Mount Carmel" and received a
grade of 97 on it. In this paper, Katz described the battle for
Tantura, a coastal village of 1,500. In the battle, Katz wrote, 10
to 20 villagers were killed, but "by the end of that day, no less
than 200-250 men had been killed, in circumstances in which the
villagers were without weapons and totally defenseless."
Katz did not use the word "massacre," though this word was used in
an article published in Maariv in January 2000. Veterans of the
Alexandroni Brigade, which had conquered Tantura, filed a libel
suit against Katz; the university refused to defend him and then
Pappe rallied to his side, even though he'd had nothing to do with
Katz's work. But Katz, after he was questioned in court and
presented with contradictions between what was said to him in
recordings and the written material, agreed to retract the
assertion that a massacre was committed in Tantura. The next day,
Katz changed his mind again and sought to retract his retraction,
but it was too late. The court refused to consider the matter
again and left his denial of the massacre intact.
Following the court ruling, and after a careful inquiry of its
own, a Haifa University committee determined that Katz's work
"failed at the stage of presenting the raw material for the
reader's judgment, both in terms of its organization according to
strict criteria of classification and criticism, and in terms of
the apparent instances of disregard for the interviewees'
testimony" and asked him to resubmit it. Katz submitted a second
version, but this, too, was rejected by the reviewers.
Throughout this time, Pappe was almost the only one who stood by
Katz. He said that despite its inaccuracies, Katz's work proved
that there was a massacre in Tantura and therefore the university
should approve his thesis. Now the Alexandroni Brigade veterans
directed their criticism at Pappe. They maintained that he was
spreading lies by supporting a fundamentally false piece of work
and demanded his dismissal from the university.
The clashes grew increasingly harsh until eventually, in May 2002,
Prof. Yossi Ben-Artzi, then the dean of the faculty of the
humanities and today the rector of Haifa University, submitted a
request to the university's disciplinary committee that it throw
Pappe out of the university. Nothing of the sort had ever occurred
in the history of Israeli academia. The committee chairman found
flaws in Ben-Artzi's request and no discussion of the request ever
took place, but ever since, Pappe's relations with the university
haven't known a moment of peace.
People who can be called "sympathetic to the matter" read Katz's
thesis and said it truly was done on a low level and poorly
written, regardless of any inaccuracies in it.
Pappe: "The first thesis was without blemish. They gave it a grade
of 97. I would have given it 100 - even though I wasn't involved
in the first thesis. I wasn't the adviser on it, as people are
always writing. But in the second version that he submitted he was
so cautious. They compelled him to quote entire testimonies to the
point where it became not a good work. Teddy showed me the second
version before he submitted it and I told him that I'd let him
write it again.
"True, in the first work they found six instances of
discrepancies" (according to the committee's report, there were
actually nine cases of "highly serious discrepancies"). Pappe
continues to minimize greatly the seriousness of the committee's
findings: "Out of these six instances, two are significant. In one
place, he quotes a soldier as using the word 'Nazis' instead of
'Germans.' In another place, he wrote that a Palestinian witness
saw the incident and didn't hear about it. In other words, he
turned a hearsay witness into an eyewitness. It was an innocent
mistake. I heard all 60 hours of those recordings and that part
was in a village dialect of Arabic and it was very hard to
understand, though that doesn't make it okay. If he were to
publish the thesis as a book, I would definitely tell him to fix
it, but that doesn't change the essence."
And what is the essence as you see it?
"For me, as a historian, what the Jews said, what the Arabs said
and what the hints in the IDF archive said - are enough for me to
be able to say with deep conviction that there was a massacre in
Tantura. Not everyone has to accept it, but that's true in regard
to every historic event.
"By the way, when the whole affair blew up, I proposed that the
university convene a panel of experts to say what they would
conclude from Teddy Katz's materials, to discuss the question of
whether it is possible to conclude from them whether or not there
was a massacre. Instead of an affair that brought a boycott upon
them, they could have turned it into an affair that would have
burnished their reputation in the world.
"But Ben-Artzi, and Yoav Gelber especially, saw themselves as
defending Zionism and they weren't interested in questions of
history. And by disqualifying Teddy's thesis, they sent a message
to every research student, to every professor without tenure, that
if they research the 1948 story in a way that contradicts the
Zionist narrative, they will not be able to advance. I had an Arab
student who wanted to research '48 and told me: Look what they did
to a Jewish student. Imagine what they'll do to me. He dropped the
The AUT decision says that the harassment directed at you has
continued since then. The university president says that there is
no harassment, that it's all your lies and that the complaint
against you is of no importance because the disciplinary
proceeding was canceled. So what has happened since 2002?
"The trial against me was an attempt to use a legal proceeding to
get rid of me, and it failed because of the international support
that I recruited from the same group of lecturers that has now
issued the boycott request. Since then I have been subjected to a
de facto boycott. Anyone who wanted to invite me to a conference
or seminar received a phone call from the rector or the president
telling them it was better not to invite me, given my views and
You know this from first-hand testimony?
"I know it from first-hand testimony. Still, there were two or
three brave people who invited me despite everything, but they had
some very, very tough experiences. It reached the point where
people were questioned about having been seen having a cup of
coffee with me in the teachers' lounge. To break the boycott
atmosphere, I tried to arrange several conferences. A year ago, I
tried to arrange a conference on Arab and Israeli historiography
about '48. I was told that I couldn't hold the conference but I
still tried to do it. And then, using physical force, they sent 10
security men to prevent me from entering the auditorium and the
university's chief security officer grabbed me by the hand and
told the president over his walkie-talkie - the president was
Yehuda Hayot then - 'I got him,' as if they'd caught Osama bin
Laden. I stirred up an international outcry and then they approved
"Look, persecution in academia isn't a terrible thing. You don't
die from it and you don't get physically injured from it. But
within the academic world, if that's the world you live in, then
you suffer. Suffer in the academic sense, of course."
And you reported about all of these things to the people abroad?
"I reported to the people abroad on every such incident. They
asked me to and I reported. You have to understand that in these
people's eyes, after the death of Edward Said, I'm considered one
of the main people putting forward the Palestinian cry. Therefore,
shutting me up isn't any ordinary shutting up of a professor, but
a shutting up of one of the most effective voices in this
struggle. I've always made clear that my personal situation is not
difficult - I'm not in the Shin Bet cellars - but shutting me up
has significance because I'm the only one in Israel who teaches a
course on a subject that the Israelis don't want to deal with, on
the ethnic cleansing of 1948. It's my most popular course:
Unfortunately, many students write to me that they can't take it
because there's no room left. That's why I think that what I'm
doing is important."
The only one in Israel?
"Yes, who else is there? In Israel today there are two
professional historians who are considered new historians - Benny
Morris and myself. I'm not talking about a psychologist, like
Benny Beit-Hallahmi, or about a chemist, like Yisrael Shahak, who
wrote about '48. I'm talking about people whose profession is
history, who are skilled in working with records and documents and
oral history, who are considered for advancement based on the
research they've done on '48. That's the significance of a book of
mine on '48, which is only accepted for publication after it has
been examined as a professional work of history, compared to a
The option of silence
Ilan Pappe, 50, was born in Haifa, concentrated on Middle Eastern
studies in high school and then served in intelligence in the
army. He earned his doctorate from Oxford University, where he
studied international relations and Middle Eastern studies. He has
been teaching at Haifa University since 1984, first in the Middle
Eastern Studies Department and then in the Political Science
Department. Pappe is one of the founders of the "new history" in
Israel, together with Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim, and is
considered the theoretician of this group, which reexamined the
history of the state's birth, relying on new documents discovered
in the archives, among other things.
Pappe, who now calls himself an "anti-Zionist," has written many
books, including "Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict" and "A
History of Modern Palestine," some of which were published by
prestigious houses like Cambridge University Press. In 2002, he
published a political biography of the Husseini family in Hebrew.
The British decision to call for the boycott, which is linked to
you personally and mentions you personally, doesn't embarrass you?
You don't ask yourself: Should this whole university be dumped on
just because of me?
"It's not just about me. They wanted to add other things -
harassment of Arab students, the closing of the theater department
because of political plays. You'll have to ask them why they
narrowed it down to just my issue. Yes, on the one hand, it does
embarrass me. But on the other hand, I can't complain. In 2002, I
first appealed to Israeli academia to help me, to not have me
thrown out, and especially to not have Katz be thrown out. No one
in Israeli academia came to my aid. So then I turned to the
outside. I can't complain if a respected academic body has come to
No one came to Katz's aid?
"No one came to his aid. Why should they? He's a master's student.
They're professors. What do they care? After I sat here and
transcribed the tapes - I sat here for 60 hours transcribing, and
I know Arabic - two or three colleagues changed their mind and
helped. But they didn't endanger their careers. I knew that when I
went to help Katz, I would get it in return. But I didn't know how
You've been left almost completely alone. Not just from the right,
which sees you as a traitor, but also from what could be called
the "peace camp" at the university. Hardly a voice is heard in
support of you.
"I don't see any drastic change. I've been in this position since
'Operation Defensive Shield,' ever since my break with the Israeli
left. I had six supporters in the university. Now I'll have two.
But you'll also see that the responses on the Internet, on y-net
and nrg, show 20 percent support, which is very interesting,
fascinating support that I didn't receive before. At the
university, there are also at least two professors who, even if
they don't support the boycott, support my right to support a
boycott. I receive many letters of support. The question is if
there is any debate about the issue among this left, and I think
there is. You should know, I also wrestled with myself a great
deal over the boycott. I agonized."
It's also said on the left that you fly solo, that you're
conducting Ilan Pappe's foreign policy.
"The Zionist left is not my milieu. My milieu is the Palestinian
milieu. My milieu is the progressive and leftist international
milieu. I've reached the conclusion, though I could be wrong, that
there is no chance that a significant movement that would end the
occupation will arise from within the State of Israel. There
isn't, and it doesn't matter how many good people there are in
Israel. If we wait for an effective movement to end the
occupation, what will happen in the end is the total destruction
of the Palestinian people. Not today, not tomorrow. After the
third or the fourth intifada.
"The Palestinian armed struggle has also failed. It has no chance.
I also cannot support it because I am a pacifist. It may be that
my way has no chance either. It may be that the Palestinians are
doomed to extinction, but I don't want to live as someone who
didn't do all he could to stop this. And the only thing that can
stop Israel is outside pressure.
"The mechanism of the boycott on South Africa began with solo
actions. It's not just me. You could say the same thing about
Prof. Tanya Reinhart. There are some more people whose adamant
positions are considered problematic by the Israeli left. It's the
price that I pay. You want me to tell you that it's fun? Do I
sound calm to you? Inside I'm not calm. I'm not enjoying this. I
very much want to be relevant in my society. I'm a person who
loves people. I want to be loved. It's not easy for me with this
position, with the hatred that is directed at me. There are people
who live just fine with it. I don't. And it may be that one day
I'll decide that the price is too steep and then I'll choose the
option of silence or the option of leaving, which everyone wishes
I would choose. Perhaps I will leave. But for now, I'm holding
In the classroom, I'm king
Why a boycott on academia? Prof. Baruch Kimmerling wrote that
Israeli academia is under attack and weakening it will only
increase its dependence on the government. And besides, of all the
social entities in Israel, academia has been the one to raise a
"The boycott on academia is part of a growing boycott that isn't
reported on - of Israeli products, Israeli singers. The boycott
reached academia because academia in Israel chose to be official,
national. Prof. Yehuda Shenhav checked into it and found that out
of 9,000 members of academia in Israel, only 30-40 are actively
engaged in reading significant criticism, and a smaller number,
just three or four, are teaching their students in a critical
manner about Zionism and so on. Academia has chosen to be the
official Israeli propaganda."
Is the situation really that extreme?
"Certainly. Academia is Israel's most important ambassador in
making the claim that we are the only democracy in the Middle
East. And there's another thing - which might make the Israeli
elite think differently about its self-image as a Western society.
If wherever an Israeli goes, he is told officially: 'You aren't
really part of the West. You're not part of enlightened society.
You really belong to the unenlightened world' - This is an
important message to Israelis. They established this Western, or
pseudo-Western, island in the midst of the Middle East, and it is
very much dependent on what the Europeans, not just the Americans,
think of us.
"Furthermore, I don't think that an academic can come and say,
'Impose a boycott on Polgat, or on the Israeli diamond industry.'
Israeli laborers would suffer, factory owners would suffer. I
think that it is fair when I say I'm ready to pay the price and
I'm not demanding that anyone else pay it. If the academic boycott
becomes sweeping, and I'm told by people from abroad, 'Ilan, we
won't invite you to a conference, either' - to me, that's a very
So you do feel some sort of vengefulness.
"Yes, especially because of Katz. I didn't suffer. Teddy Katz
suffered a stroke because of this university. He almost died. And
a master's degree student shouldn't almost die because of a
university. So it will be a little uncomfortable for the
university. So what?"
One of the most common reactions to your move has been to say that
you can't spit in the well you drink from, that it's real chutzpah
that you continue to work at the university. President Ben-Ze'ev
told you that you cannot work at Haifa University because you are
calling for it to be boycotted.
"Ben-Ze'ev has no idea what academia is. My master's students went
and asked him why he doesn't understand that his job is to protect
my right to criticize him. Then he told them that my job is to be
loyal to the institution."
So you're deeply disappointed with Israeli academia?
"Very deeply - with academia and with the media. I think that
academia and the media are supposed to be the most sensitive
organs in the society, the parts with the most conscience. In
secular society, they fill the role that belonged to the rabbis,
to the clergy, in religious society. But in Israel, these are the
people with the least conscience - I'm generalizing, of course.
Instead of being the watchdogs of democracy they're turning into
the rubber stamps of the ruling ideology. I travel a lot in the
territories and I'm appalled by what I see. How is it possible to
live with the horror of guard towers around cities like Tul Karm
and Qalqilyah? How is it possible to see a soldier giving elderly
Palestinian women a hard time day in and day out, sometimes the
same old woman? How is it possible to ignore this when it's being
done in your name? Can you just keep teaching about France in the
Middle Ages when your job is to be an intellectual?
"I'm paid to be critical. They give you tenure so you won't be
pressured. People here have forgotten what the universities were
founded for. They gave a person tenure just so he would be able to
come and say to Haifa University - I'm not afraid to tell you that
you're taking an unacceptable stand on the matter of Teddy Katz.
So what did the university do? It said: We'll take away your
tenure so you won't be able to say that."
Still, how can you stay in a place that you're calling to boycott?
"Do you think that Haifa University can get rid of me now? The
intention isn't for people in Haifa to start to love me. The
intention is for it to be impossible to touch me anymore. If I
still think that Haifa University is an important platform, I'll
stay, because Haifa University doesn't belong to the rector. It
doesn't belong to the president. It also belongs to the 20 percent
of the Arab students who are about to send a petition calling on
me not to resign."
So then, you're staying at Haifa University?
"I'm staying for the students. My classes are full to bursting.
I'm not staying for my colleagues. It's unpleasant for me in the
hallways. People look at me askance, as at a traitor, and now it
will surely be worse. But in class I'm king. I'll leave when I
feel that the students don't want me. There are also more of them.
There are 13,000 students and 900 faculty."