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General Articles
Israel's academic eccentrics not so harmless By GERALD M. STEINBERG THE JERUSALEM POST Oct. 3, 2002

Israel's academic eccentrics not so harmless By GERALD M. STEINBERG



This week, a small group of Israeli academics circulated an "urgent warning" that "the Israeli government may be contemplating crimes against humanity."

This hysterical missive, published in Britain's Guardian newspaper and in the (Saudi) Arab News, was based on a jumble of statements by IDF Chief of General Staff Moshe Ya'alon, distorted and out of context, and from two minor politicians.

In any serious academic setting, this and a long list of similar epistles signed by many of the same authors would never receive a passing grade. Beyond the substantive failings in the use of sources, the turgid style and prose are reminiscent of Soviet propaganda from Pravda's style-sheet.

Converting legitimate responses to brutal Palestinian terrorism into "escalating racist demagoguery," they scream with definitive ambiguity that this "may indicate the scope of the crimes that are possibly being contemplated." In conclusion, they call on "the International Community" (whoever or whatever this may be) "to pay close attention to events... to make it absolutely clear that crimes against humanity will not be tolerated..."

In contrast, there is a reverberating silence on the real war crimes committed by the Palestinians in the past two years.
Israelis generally give little credence to the ramblings of the extremist fringe, which they attribute to deep-seated psychological factors, an obsessive need for attention, and the desire to "fit in" with fringe colleagues abroad. Aside from an occasional guest appearance in the media, these people have absolutely no access to decision-makers in the government (particularly in the past two years), and their political opinions are either ignored or ridiculed. While many have frustrated political ambitions and would rather be directing governments instead of teaching unappreciative undergraduates, none are electable.

HOWEVER, it is a mistake to dismiss these activities as the musings of harmless eccentrics or refugees from Chelm. Indeed, members of this group have been very successful at boosting their visibility by exploiting the appeal of Jewish self-denigration to anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist groups (now a major industry) in Europe and on US campuses.

Although they constitute only a tiny fraction of Israeli academics, they promote themselves and their extremist ideas with great enthusiasm. Skillfully exploiting access to the media and to funding, they invented the short-lived "post-Zionist" and "anti-Zionist" sects and the "new history" fad.
Ilan Pappe from Haifa University is one of the usual signatories, and also a notorious "revisionist historian," providing "expertise" for BBC anti-Israeli documentaries. Anti-Israel Israelis sell well and are well rewarded for their contributions.

As a result, little attention is paid to their multiple failures in predicting or explaining events in Israel (particularly salient in the cases of those who claim academic expertise in Israeli sociology and politics).

To cite the most recent examples in a long list, a few months ago, members of this group promoted the concept that large numbers of Israelis would soon refuse to appear for reserve duty in the IDF. Based on op-ed articles such as one written by Prof. Baruch Kimmerling of the Hebrew University and published in the International Herald Tribune, journalists and diplomats circulated this story widely.

A few weeks later, only a handful of reservists actually rejected their call-up orders; instead, the IDF was flooded with far more volunteers than could be accepted. Similarly, members of this group vigorously promoted the Palestinian propaganda machine's tales of a "massacre" in Jenin.

Now, with no sense of embarrassment or integrity, they have moved to a new propaganda campaign. Their "warnings" have absolutely no credibility with individuals who have even a minimal understanding of Israeli reality, but this does not stop the public-relations machine.

However, and most disturbingly, in the Arab world and among many Palestinians, such fringe groups are distorted into accurate reflections of Israel. For Arafat and his cohorts, the image of a deeply divided Israeli society, full of self-doubt, without direction or the ability to defend itself against terrorism and brutality, was very appealing.

Magnifying the impact of this group completely out of proportion (in part, reflecting the disproportionate number of meetings involving the fringe Left), Palestinians mistakenly assumed that Israel would quickly collapse under the weight of terror.

In terms of the ethical principles that these extremist Israeli academics claim to follow, their statements should at least include a consumer warning that these views reflect only a tiny fraction of Israelis.

Tenured faculty members in this group (who use their power to promote partners with the same ideology) have the right to free speech. These anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist academics cannot be dismissed for signing petitions, no matter how ludicrous. (Meanwhile, their universities continue to raise money from well-meaning but apparently uninformed Jewish contributors in the Diaspora in the name of Jewish survival and Zionism.)

The time has come for the silent majority of sane Israeli academics to raise their voices against the injustice and immorality of terrorism and hatred, and in support of the Jewish right to self-defense.

We are not obligated to agree with or accept every policy that the elected government of Israel pursues, and have the duty to protest mistakes in a responsible manner. However, my non-fanatical and non-eccentric Israeli colleagues have the obligation to ensure that eccentrics and anti-Zionist extremists are not allowed to speak for the rest of us.

The writer is director of the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation at Bar-Ilan University.

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