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Israel's Big Brother?

Kesher Talk

October 27, 2006

Judith has asked me to comment on the phenomeon of Israel Academia Monitor, a website which seeks to collate and expose various anti-, post-, etc-Zionist statements of various Israeli academics. As a student at an Israeli university this is an issue on which I think I am at least somwhat qualified to comment. I don't think the issue is as cut and dried as academic freedom vs. censorship or leftist domination of academia vs. conservative demands for intellectual diversity. The purpose of the website is fairly clear, that is to inform potential donors to Israel's university of the precense of acadamics whose work they may find objectionable. Clearly, there is also the strong implication of a pervasive political atmosphere, that is of a domination of certain universities or the university system by these academics and by their post- or anti-Zionist political positions.

First, I must make clear that I see no issue of censorship here whatsoever. IAM is a website which, primarily, presents quotes and statements from the academics in question and leaves it up to the reader to make up their own mind. On this point, I have no objections. Its specific purpose of informing donors does not strike me as problematic either. Donors have a perfect right to put their money where they wish and critics of certain universities are free to advocate their cause as much as these institutions supporters are free to do so. In other words, whatever its faults, IAM is very far from Big Brother.

However, I do have certain reservations about the site in question. I can only speak directly to the institution I know personally, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. I have some personal experience with the
academics in question, especially with Hanna Yablonka, Oren Yiftachel, and Amnon Raz-Karkotzkin. Neve Gordan I know by reputation and his writings. Ilan Pappe (from Haifa University) is another story, as I have some knowledge of his career and especially the Tantura affair.

From such experience, I can say that IAM casts a wide net, perhaps much too wide. Hanna Yablonka, for instance, is in no way a post- or anti-Zionist. Her statement reproduced on the website is a perfectly legitimate critique of the extreme wing of the settler movement and one which I share to a certain extent. Her language is harsh, perhaps unnecessarily so, but Yablonka is one of the most prominent scholars of the Holocaust today and relates to the subject with intense emotion. Her inclusion strikes me as ignorant and unfair.

As to Oren Yiftachel, he is most certainly an anti-Zionist and, I must say, holds views of Jewish history in general which I find personally offensive and deeply mistaken. It is perfectly legitimate to criticize him, especially when one presents his own statements as evidence.

Amnon Raz-Karkotzkin is a more difficult issue, not only because of my own affection and respect for him. Firstly, his primary concentration is not Zionism at all but midevil Judaism and its role in the rise of modernity. He is most certainly deeply critical of Zionism. On the basis of his advocacy of a bi-national state one could legitimately term him an anti-Zionist but this nonetheless oversimplifies a complex and original scholar of great talent. I am totally opposed to his political positions, but that is a personal issue which in no effects the influence he has had on my own thinking and my respect for him as a scholar and thinker. I would note that having taken three classes with him has in no way changed my position regarding Zionism nor have I felt myself treated unfairly by him as a result of my contrary opinions. There is no doubt that Raz holds political opinions contrary and, perhaps, offensive to those of most Israelis, but his quality as a scholar is undeniable. IAM ought to present a more complete picture of the targets of its criticism for precisely such reasons.

Neve Gordan and Ilan Pappe I know only indirectly. Based on their writings and statements, I have no respect whatsoever for their scholarship nor for their political opinions. They are, in my opinion, shallow and petulent gadflies. Pappe, who defended outright academic fraud in the Tantura case - in which a Haifa University graduate student fabricated a massacre supposedly committed by Israeli troops in the War of Independence - strikes me as particularly odious. Gordan appears, to my mind, to be little more than a childish rhetorical arsonist. What William F. Buckley called "activist pornography" seems to be his personal speciality.

All of these are, of course, only my personal opinions. The broader question is whether an anti- or post-Zionist perspective dominates at BGU and in the Israeli university system in general. The answer, as usual, is more complicated than IAM presents it. There is no doubt that Israeli academia leans broadly to the left. However, the atmosphere is not that of the anti-Zionist left, but rather in the Meretz/Labor Party tradition of Israeli social democracy. Where IAM has a point, however, is in regards to the reaction of this establishment culture to more radical and extreme forms of leftist intellectualism. For the most part, this reaction is one of fear and indulgence. That is, the left establishment of Israel's universities finds in its own ideology no defense against the more furious attacks of its extreme wing against Zionism and against Israeli society. In this sense, IAM's target is entirely mistaken. If it sees value in the established values of Zionism and Israeli society, its criticism should be directed not at the minority who oppose it but towards the majority who cannot find the courage to resist this opposition on scholarly and intellectual terms. The failure is not one of inadequate gate keeping but inadequate intellectual courage.

In short, I am of two (or more) opinions regarding IAM and its positions. On the one hand, I do not accept the argument that such sites constitute an illigitimate and censorious assault on academic freedom. Scions of the establishment (and any tenured academic is precisely that) cannot escape comedy when they attempt to portray themselves as oppressed by websites. On the other hand, there is a lack of care and rigor in IAM's positions and criticisms that I find offensive to the intelligence of its readers and unfair to many of its targets. In attacking, for instance, Tel Aviv University's Tanya Reinhardt, it is less productive to call her names than to point out that in her 300 page book on the second intifada there is not a single mention of Palestinian suicide bombings and their victims, thus calling Ms. Reinhardt's supposed commitment to human rights into serious question. In other words, if IAM wants to have a real impact on the Israeli intellectual debate, it should not stand outside and throw grenades but rather engage carefully and intelligently with the phenomenon it considers a danger to Zionism and the society Zionism has built. In doing so, it must remember that there is a place and a value to the unorthodox and the contrary, and these in no way negate the rights of any person and organization to criticize the unorthodox and the contrary on precisely that basis or, which I personally prefer, on the specific content of the unorthodox or the contrary position. A site established on this basis is both necessary and one which I would happily welcome.

Benjamin | 10/27/06






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