This past semester, I took a course at Ben-Gurion University entitled “Selected Topics in the Geography of the Middle East,” which was taught jointly by Dr. Nir Cohen and Dr. Oren Yiftachel. The course was part of the MAPMES program, which is a masters program taught in English that is designed to teach international students about the situation in the Middle East. To my dismay, in this particular course, international students, instead of being educated about the complicated reality in the Middle East, were instead being taught to be hostile towards Israel.
Examples of the types of objectionable statements uttered in the course by Dr. Yiftachel include, “Israel is in a colonial situation with the Palestinians,” “the whole Israeli state is what you call an ethnocracy,” Israeli “hegemony” has “wiped out the substantive Mizrahi culture” because the Mizrahi Jews today don’t see themselves as Arabs, Immanuel “is a colony outside the boundaries of Israel,” “on the right, […] you will find elements of deep racism” in Israeli society, and while discussing Yisrael Beiteinu’s role in the last election, Dr. Yiftachel stated, “if apartheid can legitimately run for election on the ticket of denying citizenship, […] that means the boundary is very shaky in terms of including all the citizens,” etc. As a result of similar statements to these uttered, I decided to get involved with Israel Academia Monitor and to write expose’s about the propagandistic nature of the teaching that I was receiving in this particular course.
However, despite originally writing my expose’s online anonymously, Dr. Oren Yiftachel figured out that it was me who was writing the exposes. Soon afterwards, I received a threatening e-mail by last year’s head of the MAPMES program, Dr. Avi Rubin. In the e-mail, Dr. Avi Rubin stated, “Your defamatory web postings re Professor Yiftachel and Dr. Cohen’s class have been brought to my attention. I wish to meet with you and discuss the possible ramifications of this.”
Israel Academia Monitor and I interpreted this e-mail as an attempt to silence my freedom of speech. As a result, I was advised to not respond to this e-mail. In the meantime, I was in communication with a series of people involved with Israel Academia Monitor and they supported me by putting me in contact with the well-known attorney, Dr. Haim Misgav, who has experience dealing with anti-Israel professors and agreed to represent me. I took his advice to not respond to Dr. Rubin’s second e-mail, which asked me why I did not respond to the first e-mail.
On April 25, 2010, I received a telephone call from Dr. Rubin, where he demanded an explanation for why I did not answer him. On the telephone, he denied wanting to punish me and claimed that he just wanted to discuss the matter with me, since I was making life difficult for Dr. Oren Yiftachel. I wanted to believe that he wanted to work out some sort of compromise with me. However, after I received Dr. Rubin’s response to my attorney, it became clear to me that this was not Dr. Rubin’s intentions, for he unjustifiably accused me of lying, decided to side with Dr. Yiftachel before even hearing what I had to say, and refused my request to remain impartial on this issue before hearing all of the facts. It was decided that there would be a meeting to discuss this matter, where “the university’s legal department, together with Dr. Oren Yiftachel and Dr. Cohen,” in addition to my attorney, a pro-Israel professor, and a sympathetic member of the Board of Governors would be present.
However, after this exchange, the pressure wore off. I believe that this happened because on May 5, 2010, I met with Dr. Oren Yiftachel to discuss my final paper topic. Yet instead of discussing my paper for the entire session, he spent fifty percent of his time explaining how I hurt his feelings. I responded that I did what I did because I found his lectures offensive and that what I was doing for Israel Academia Monitor, by expressing myself, fell within academic freedom. He then asserted that while he understood the controversial nature of his lectures, what I did with a political organization was different from writing criticism in a peer reviewed journal, where he would have the right to respond. I guess the fact that Dana Barnett offered to let him respond on the website and permitted another left wing professor to leave a long comment on my posting was irrelevant.
I also noted to myself how it was hypocritical to tell me not to be involved with critiquing him as part of a political organization, when he has such a prominent position with B’tselem, which is very much a politicized non-governmental organization. But I did not want to argue with him, I just wanted help on my paper. In the end, after he pressured me for some sort of conciliatory gesture, I told him that I was trying to understand where he was coming from, which is the truth. As an olah chadasha who is very much a Zionist, it is very hard for me to comprehend why a native born Israeli would hold such anti-Israeli positions and I am trying to learn what caused an intellectual to take such extremist positions against his own people.
I was hoping that this exchange between Dr. Oren Yiftachel and me would end the whole controversy. However, on May 24, 2010, I was interrupted by Dr. Nir Cohen and prevented from finishing my statement when I started to speak about the lack of loyalty amongst certain Israeli Arabs. The controversy was ignited further when the Im Tirtzu Report to the Knesset Education Committee came out, where my name and my story were mentioned prominently. On June 2, 2010, I went into a meeting with Dr. Yiftachel to discuss with him my final paper, only to get lectured instead. In this meeting, I faced even more intimidation than my last meeting with Dr. Yiftachel. Dr. Yiftachel claimed that he did not think that we could have a working relationship together. He went on and on lecturing me about how what Im Tirtzu and Israel Academia Monitor did was unethical and claimed that I violated university policies by doing what I did. Dr. Yiftachel said that this had the potential to be a war between the two of us. While asserting that his work with B’tselem had credibility as a human rights organization, he claimed what Israel Academia Monitor and Im Tirtzu are doing is like McCarthyism. He said that he was not an extremist and that I jumped to conclusions without giving him a fair hearing and that referring to him as an extremist is slander. He also said that I did not have the right to judge him without having a PHD. I felt so scared and intimidated. I did not know what to do.
Given this tense situation, I tried to pretend that I did not know the information that I gave to Israel Academia Monitor would be sent by Im Tirtzu to the Knesset. I pretended that I did not give Im Tirtzu permission to publish this story. I denied my current involvement with Israel Academia Monitor and Im Tirtzu. I apologized. I felt like lying was the only way that I could even remotely hope to get a fair grade from him and it appears that I was right about this. Only after I lied and apologized did he get off my case and help me with my paper, and by the time that he finished with that, he had lectured me for forty minutes, while only spending ten to twenty minutes helping me on my paper.
While I was hoping that the lying combined with not publishing any thing new before my grades were submitted would decrease the chances that I would not be downgraded for my political beliefs, I did not want to rely on this alone. So, with the advice of friends from Israel Academia Monitor, I had a meeting with Dr. Rivka Carmi on June 16, 2010. She listened very politely to my concerns and agreed that it was wrong for students at Ben-Gurion University to feel intimidated. So, she put a mechanism in place that would guarantee that if I felt that Dr. Yiftachel downgraded me, I could have another neutral professor grade my paper.
I believe that it was because of this mechanism put into place by Dr. Carmi, combined with support from a sympathetic member of the Board of Governors, that I was not downgraded by Dr. Yiftachel. Also, amongst other news, Dr. Rubin, the man who had sent me that threatening e-mail this past semester, is no longer in charge of the MAPMES program this year. Thus, I believe that Ben-Gurion University is taking some positive steps to help out students like myself. However, Dr. Oren Yiftachel is still teaching this fall semester in the MAPMES program a course entitled “Israel/Palestine: The Politics of Land and Identity,” despite the intimidation that I faced from him and the fact that Dr. Yiftachel has a propagandistic teaching style.
RACHEL AVRAHAM IS AN MA STUDENT AT BEN-GURION UNIVERSITY AND A RESEARCHER FOR ISRAEL ACADEMIA MONITOR.