Seeking intellectual integrity
Op-ed: Israeli academia must engage in some searing soul-searching without
By Martin Sherman
Published: 11.10.10, 00:42 / Israel Opinion , ynet
“Had such professional misconduct occurred in the natural or physical
sciences there would have doubtless been serious consequences: e.g.
the collapse of a bridge following phony engineering calculations… Yet
it would seem that when it comes to the social sciences or the
humanities… the researcher can escape punishment for the worst kind of
Prof. Efraim Karsh in "Fabricating Israeli History"
The furor over allegations of post/anti-Zionist bias in the Israeli
academe refuses to subside. Last week a heated debate on the topic was
held in the Knesset's Education Committee with the participation of
Education Minister Gideon Saar. Clearly the charges as to deliberate
ideological imbalance were not directed at the faculties of the
natural or exact sciences but focused on the social sciences and the
Unsurprisingly, the representatives of the institutes of higher
learning rejected the accusations of intentional exclusion of
pro-Zionist perspectives, opposed any discussion of the issue, and
questioned the very legitimacy of debate on the subject, warning that
it constituted a grave threat to academic freedom which could
undermine democratic governance in the country. As to bias in the
appointment of faculty, and in promotion criteria, they endeavored to
reassure the participants that these were based solely on academic
achievement and professional excellence.
However their protestations raised at least two trenchant questions.
First, With regard to academic freedom and its limitations: As early
as 1919, the US Supreme Court handed down a seminal ruling that false
statements which could inflict harm on others were not protected as
"free speech" under the Constitution. Although there might be a
discernable distinction between "free speech" and "academic freedom",
it is still difficult to accept the somewhat convoluted claim by the
senior representatives of the nation's universities that any public
debate on academic freedom endangers its future.
Surely few would contest that the very raison d'etre of academic
freedom is to facilitate the pursuit of truth and not the propagation
of falsehoods. For example, it is highly implausible that a geography
professor would win the support of his colleagues were he to promote a
theory that the earth is flat. Similarly it would be difficult to
imagine that an aeronautical engineer could mobilize much backing for
his right to disseminate a thesis casting doubt on the existence of
gravity - despite being able to present irrefutable evidence of leaves
being wafted aloft by updrafts of air.
Absurd examples? Ludicrous comparisons? How about the claims that
Israel is an "apartheid state", implementing a policy of racial
discrimination like that of South Africa, alleged proven by the
different legal systems applied to Israeli citizens - whether Jewish
or not - and to Palestinians without Israeli citizenship? After all,
any informed observer must be aware that this disparity is not rooted
in any doctrine of racial superiority, but in exigencies of security.
There is an enormous difference between legitimate disagreement on the
prudence and/or efficacy of measures taken to defend one's civilian
population, and the baseless accusation that a country - in which
non-Jews are elected to parliament, appointed to senior positions in
the judiciary and the diplomatic corps, and serve as ministers in the
government - is in any way similar to the apartheid-era South Africa.
So if academic freedom does not apply to theories of a flat earth and
non-existence of gravity, why should it be invoked to cover equally
ridiculous social theories?
Real-time reality check
Secondly, with regard to the significance of academic excellence in
social sciences and humanities: There is indeed a manifest difficulty
in ascertaining the validity of theories in these fields. So how can
their quality be assessed? Do they need to be subjected to some form
of testing or verification? Or is it sufficient for them to conform to
prevailing fashions and norms of a closed professional clique whose
members exchange mutual accolades and flattering reviews of each
other's work, while excluding any dissenting perspective, no matter
how well founded?
Alternatively if mere eloquence and originality are the definitive
criteria, what is to differentiate between "excellence" in these
fields and a work of literary fiction, devoid of any claims to
In the field of social science and the humanities, it is rare that an
opportunity presents itself to allow a theory to be subjected to an
almost real-time reality check. Fortunately the political developments
in recent decades have afforded just such an opportunity.
With the commencement of the "peace process", the virtually entire
cadre of social scientists and their colleagues in the humanities
endorsed a policy previously eschewed by all Israeli government; a
policy whose major thrust was wide-scale withdrawal from Judea,
Samaria and Gaza and the establishment of a Palestinian state on the
evacuated areas. Policy papers were written, research conducted,
articles published, public declarations of support signed, all
expressing professional optimism as to the rosy future this bold new
vision heralded for the region. There was hardly a dissenting voice to
However, beyond the confines of the "ivory tower," many expressed
their concern, warning that the noble vision was in fact a dangerous
fantasy. Then came bitter reality. And alas, the assessments of the
greengrocers, the cabdrivers, the market vendors proved correct; the
forecasts of the academic experts and the learned scholars, totally
Now imagine that a group of civil engineering professors were to
endorse a new revolutionary system for the construction of bridges,
which departed considerably from accepted principles. Suppose the new
system aroused much interest at home and abroad and brought much
praise to its instigators and their disciples. Unfortunately however,
all the bridges actually built by this method collapsed
catastrophically, causing widespread loss of life and limb. Under such
circumstances, surely these "new architects" would not be showered
with professional commendation; surely their work would not be branded
as reflecting "excellence" and surely they would not be invited to
appear as experts on bridge construction at conferences and in
media-interviews - as is the case with those who endorsed the failed
Oslowian "architecture" of the peace process.
The Israeli academic establishment needs to muster much intellectual
integrity to scrutinize what is taking place under its alleged
auspices: the propagation of baseless allegations which fly in the
face of both fact and logic; misleading research whose grounding in
reality is at best tenuous; almost total exclusion of faculty members
who foretold the calamitous failure of the "peace process," relative
to a glut of those who did not….
The Israeli academia must indeed engage in some searing soul-searching
without delay. Indeed, if those responsible for its future do not
initiate such a process, others will soon impose it on them.