April 30, 2007, p. 50
Every spring, representatives of Israel ’s universities crisscross the Diaspora seeking donations. The appeals are deliciously, explicitly, inspirationally Zionist, inviting Zionist givers to fulfill the modern Zionist dream by funding Israel ’s centers of higher learning. Yet, as administrators sing this lovely, lucrative Zionist song, some Israeli professors, funded by these same donor-dollars, preach an ugly
Israeli academics have helped choreograph the shameful demonization of Israel and Zionism. They have caricatured Israel as the aggressor and an oppressor, hailed Palestinian terrorists as freedom fighters, and led campaigns to boycott their own universities. Many anti-Semitic Websites highlight Israeli academics trashing the Jewish state. The section in jewwatch.com, detailing “Jewish Genocides today and yesterday“ showcases one Israeli academic’s 1991 article which popularized the “apartheid“ slur.
I wish we could note these academics’ unpatriotic poison, applaud Israel’s vigorous democracy, toast Israel’s academic freedom, and leave it at that. But words can kill. The intellectual demonization of Israel has helped isolate Israel diplomatically, emboldening the terrorists. Moreover, I feel snookered when I hear university leaders entreating donors to build the Jewish state, without acknowledging that some of that money is used, even indirectly, to libel the Jewish national project. And I am outraged by reports of anti-Zionist intellectual bullying in some departments. We need vigorous, nuanced responses that preserve academic freedom. The flow of ideas, like blood flowing to the brain, cannot be restricted without causing harm. Academics must remain free to pursue foolish, subversive, distorted ideas, so that tomorrow’s wisdom can be born today. We should not starve or boycott Israeli universities. Investing in Israeli research and teaching pays great dividends, creating literate,
sophisticated, citizens and maintaining Israel’s leading role in today’s information revolutions.
Still, a more balanced campus culture would combat educational malpractice in the classroom and promote national sanity. Universities should offer calm, broad-minded, civil alternatives to Israel’s bruising, polarizing political culture, not replicate it.
Paradoxically, while fighting intolerance and indoctrination, universities should also cultivate pride, patriotism, altruism, democracy, and yes, Zionism, in Israeli society. Even as professors and students think freely, universities should act responsibly. Whether they acknowledge it or not, universities express their values through the projects they fund, the problems they pinpoint. If donations can attract scientists to brain research, business professors to information systems, scholarship to women’s studies, strategic investments can shape a civics agenda too. Just as plants lean toward sources of light, professors and students will respond to visionary leadership.
Recently, Yeshiva University generously endowed a “Center for the Jewish Future,” an in-house, activist think tank harnessing the university’s different resources to build an exciting Jewish tomorrow. Imagine what Israeli universities could accomplish with similar entities. Historians, philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and economists could develop an updated Zionist vision for today.
Interdisciplinary experts on South Africa could study apartheid more fully, explaining why applying that label to Israel minimizes South African suffering and distorts reality. Psychologists, social workers, and educators could join with their colleagues in the more abstract humanities fields to tackle Israel’s values crisis, cultivating civics in Israeli classrooms, civility on Israeli streets, equality in Israeli society, openness in Israeli political discourse, and an ethos of mutual respect – and honor -- in the Israeli government.
Of course, other professors should feel free to disagree or pursue different interests. Investing in certain ideas should not discriminate against iconoclasts. Most funds in the university should remain based on academic merit. But particular bursaries and efforts should be invested in propping up Israel – and Zionism – in the war of ideas. Simply beginning the conversation, defining a mission, challenging universities to live up to their idyllic self-descriptions will inspire new visionaries even if it does not silence the cynics.
In fairness, this problem goes beyond Israel. American academics also delight in bashing the very country which gives them a platform to pontificate. Too frequently, 1950s McCarthyism has been replaced by an equally close-minded counter-culture. Political correctness of all stripes hinders good learning and thinking
Modern universities rarely talk about their missions, except when wooing young students or rich donors. All universities try to remain free forums for inquiry while perpetuating certain values. Israel’s universities should not become indoctrination camps. Still, it is fair to ask what values are bubbling up in the vacuum of top-down leadership. Israel’s universities – uniquely motivated by Israel’s need for champions – can lead here, preserving scholarly objectivity while promoting social utility. The idea is not to please donors; universities should tackle this challenge to fulfill themselves and offer Israel desperately needed ideological, intellectual and moral leadership.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.