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Bashing the academic Left / By David Newman
Bashing the academic Left
Apr. 14, 2009
DAVID NEWMAN , THE JERUSALEM POST

For the past two years I represented Israel's universities in the UK in the debate surrounding the proposed academic boycott. There were many who could not accept the fact that a professor with left-of-center views should fill this role. The Department of Politics at Ben-Gurion University where I work has been described by its detractors as being the most left-wing academic department in Israel. After all, they would argue, people like myself are part of the problem, not the cause, and as proof of their argument they would roll out the same two or three names of Israeli academics (most notably Ilan Pappe) who had taken the unprecedented step of actually supporting the boycott. The proposed boycott proved to be a great opportunity for some left-wing bashing rather than focusing on the real problem - the growth of anti-Israel sentiment among specific groups within the UK university faculty union.

The last few years have been "in season" for attacking the academic left, a form of academic McCarthyism that is hard to recollect going back 10 or 20 years. Most pernicious and consistent is the self-styled Campus Watch, created by the neo-con critic of the Israeli left, Daniel Pipes. It uses students and faculty to spy on those teaching courses on Israel and the Middle East. Anyone who so faintly utters a word of criticism is immediately labeled as such, including some of the best critical scholars of Israel today.

Campus Watch is a disgrace for anyone who believes in the concept of freedom of speech, and so it would appear is the copy organization Israel Academia Monitor, an interview with which appeared in the April 7 Jerusalem Post. It is little wonder that Dana Barnett was unprepared, or more likely unable to give a single name of an academic who has not been hired or promoted at an Israeli university for professing right-wing political views. I sat for three years on the promotions and tenure committee of my own university faculty. Despite the fact that the members of that committee shared a diverse range of political views, not once was the political critique allowed to intervene in what was, and remains, a very tough and demanding, but very fair, system of professional mobility.

ISRAELI universities have very tough and demanding standards, almost more than any other comparable university system in the world. Many people fall by the way when, perhaps, in other countries their CV and their research publications would be considered enough to move up the academic ladder. It is all too easy for those who fail, or whose promotion gets delayed, to blame it on political reasons, and thus to portray themselves as academic martyrs. But the truth is very different, and the universities are their own worst enemies in this respect since they insist on an anonymous and non-transparent promotion and hiring process that never allows the candidates to see the letters of recommendation or evaluations of their work. It is therefore all too easy for people with weak academic records to blame it on their political views - an argument that is used equally by both right- and left-wing academics.

One of the worst examples of this blatant political critique hiding behind the veneer of academic research is the NGO Monitor, directed by Jerusalem Post columnist and Bar-Ilan political science professor Gerald Steinberg. The Monitor, funded by anonymous right-wing supporters, has set as its task to delegitimize almost any NGO that so much as dares to support the peace process and/or receives funding from the European Union.

The Monitor Web page describes itself as an organization "founded to promote accountability, and advance a vigorous discussion on the reports and activities of humanitarian NGOs in the framework of the Arab-Israeli conflict." But it consistently refuses to analyze the activities and the dubious funding of the numerous right-wing NGOs, both in Israel and abroad, that promote West Bank settlement projects and anti-government activities when government policies are contrary to their own extremist beliefs. Projects funded through the EU are constantly portrayed as being anti-Israel, despite the fact that the EU quite legitimately and openly promotes peace related projects, unlike some of the right-wing funders that promote activities in conflict with Israeli law.

Even more disturbing is the fact that organizations such as Campus Watch, Israel Academia Monitor and NGO Monitor, to name but a few, will not disclose the names of their donors and supporters, unlike the EU, which is a very transparent organization. While the right-wing organizations pretend to seek transparency among others, they constantly refuse to divulge the same information about their own institutions. Perhaps they would be embarrassed by the fact that many of their donors hold extremist right-wing views deemed totally unacceptable to the vast majority of the Israeli public, and in some cases advocate (from afar) the breaking of Israeli law.

SELF-APPOINTED organizations of academics have set themselves up as the defenders of Israeli academia. For awhile there was the IAB (International Advisory Board) for Academic Freedom operating out of Bar-Ilan University, with its clear right-wing preferences, which never quite managed to gain acceptance by the governing authority of Israel's seven universities as its formal representative. Or there is the SPME, the oddly named Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, boasting thousands of members and partly funded through donations from the Jewish National Fund. The SPME's promotion of peace has never been able to stretch far enough to have academics with left-wing views, or Arab academics, on its board of directors, and it constantly refuses to take up the denial of academic freedom when it affects Arab or Palestinian academics. It conveniently forgets that for the argument of academic freedom to be legitimate, it has to be across the board and relevant to all, for if it is not, it is simply not academic freedom.

Recent years have also witnessed unceasing pressure from donors abroad, especially in the United States, to intervene in the management of the universities. They threaten to withhold their donations if certain individuals are not fired or prevented from moving ahead. They attack any left-wing academic for daring to air his/her views, and they normally take positions far to the right of any Israeli government, including the present one. They are people for whom the power of the pocketbook far outweighs any sense of freedom of speech.

Clearly they have a right to give their hard-earned money to whomever they want, but they do not have a right to spread false accusations of "self-hating Israelis" or "Jewish anti-Semites" about Israeli academics whose views they oppose. In pursuing their super-patriotic positions from the comfort and safety of their Diaspora residences, they cause great damage to Israel as a whole.

Too many academics here suffer from the self-need to engage in political polemics. It is especially the case among those within the social sciences whose focus of research deals with these sensitive social and political topics, and who sometimes are unable to differentiate between their personal views and professional analysis, each of which feeds into the other. But in this respect there is no difference between right- and left-wing critique, except for the fact that he who practices the former is labeled as being patriotic, and the latter as treasonous. The former is okay, the latter is to be vilified and, if possible, prevented from moving up the academic ladder.

The academic McCarthyism of the Right endangers Israeli democracy and society. It threatens the very basis of freedom of speech. The self-styled patriots are causing enormous damage to the country and should be prevented from assuming the cloak of self-appointed defenders of the common good, which they are clearly not.

The writer is a professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.

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