By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Terra Incognita: The degree to which academic discussions in Israel have become poisoned is shocking.
It is widely known that the topic of Israel is contentious on campuses throughout the world. Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, was booed at the University of California in Irvine in 2010. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had to cancel a speech at Concordia in Canada after riots in 2002. The symbols of the state get a worse welcome at many western universities than Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad got when he spoke at Columbia in 2007. Be that as it may, what is perhaps more shocking is the degree to which even academic discussions in Israel have become poisoned.
An international academic workshop began Monday, June 4, at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, under the rather mundane title “Social-Legal Perspectives on the Passage to Modernity In and Beyond the Middle East.”
The workshop consisted of a prestigious roundtable of some 40 scholars from diverse academic backgrounds at universities in Nantes, Princeton, Amsterdam and Cambridge, among others.
Along with colleagues Prof. Ruth Kark and Havatzelet Yahel, I was invited to co-present on the topic of “Negev Beduin Land Claims: Between Ottoman Land Laws and Indigenous Rights.” Our discussion examined whether the Beduin constitute an indigenous people in international law and how they came to be defined as indigenous.
After the initial short presentations were finished, questions and a roundtable discussion followed. It was obvious from the tone of the first comments that criticism of the assumptions underlying Beduin land claims to nearly 200,000 acres (some 80,000 hectares) in the Negev was simply not acceptable to most in the audience.
For example, one participant, from the University of Amsterdam, asserted that to doubt the Beduin claim of long presence in the Negev was akin to the Afrikaners’ claim during Apartheid that the African tribes of South Africa were not indigenous. He claimed that such a biased view and methodology did not constitute academic research.
It was in the midst of my reply to some of these comments that BGU Professor Aref Abu-Rabia interjected, “But you are a collaborator, aren’t you?” His outburst didn’t end there; he then said “collaborator” again and mumbled something about the Holocaust.
In an academic setting, one might think that accusing people of being connected to the Nazis or of being “collaborators,” a term also associated with Nazism, would be considered inappropriate. But the conference organizers, Avi Rubin and Iris Agmon, were mum.
The panel “discussant,” Ursola Wokoeck of BGU, also expressed no verbal sign of surprise or displeasure. In an email exchange, one of the hosts claimed not to have heard the outburst, despite the small size of the room.
Prof. Oren Yiftachel, another member of the panel discussion, confronted these comments in his own remarks, and expressed clear support for an academic level of debate and the need to respect all participants and their research. Privately, some of those who witnessed the incident have said the verbal attack was unacceptable. In a formal response on the part of the university, BGU Dean David Newman stated clearly that such behavior is improper. “Even in matters of intense political differences, academic forums have a responsibility to hear, and be heard, without the use of abrasive or unacceptable language. If we can’t do that at universities, how do we expect wider society to behave differently. Holocaust related terminology can not be part of any such debate.”
But it points to a disturbing issue. Have we become so immune to slanderous outbursts like “collaborator” that we no longer condemn them in public when they happen? Does it reflect well on Israel’s international standing when academic workshops cannot be wrapped up without the presenters being compared to those who aided the Nazis, with no sign by the organizers that such comments are a violation of the codes of conduct of the university? According to testimonies by other attendees at conferences in Israel where contentious issues are discussed, this type of behavior is increasing. They relate stories of harassment for expressing views that are not judged to be in the framework of the dominant narrative, a narrative that in some faculties is increasingly self-defined as “post-Zionist.”
WHY DO some academics at Israel’s universities think that shouting “collaborator” at other academics, merely because they think those other scholars are conducting research that tends to support the state’s positions, is acceptable? Why is there silence in the face of aggression? Diversity of academic opinions is as important to the academic system as open and rigorous debate.
The misbehaving academics are not solely to blame. It is the culture of extremism as well. One conference attendee told me, “I’ve gotten used to this harassment and lack of respect.”
WHEN THE university becomes the equivalent of a cross between a football locker room and extremist political rally, where decorum is at its lowest level, the culture of theacademy has sent the message that this hostile environment is acceptable.
It is a shame that in a university named after Israel’s first prime minister, a person who dares to question whether the Beduin do in fact have indigenous rights to much of the Negev – a right they don’t have in any other country in the Middle East – is condemned as a “collaborator.” We know what that implies. The collaborators with the Nazis were killed after the war. In the local context, those called “A’mil” or “O’malah” in Arabic are executed in Gaza for working with Israel.
Some will fall back on the academic freedom and free speech argument. To be sure, short of incitement to racism, which is illegal in Israel, calling people “collaborators” is a form of free expression. However, in an organized forum the hosts can condemn such behavior and lay out ground rules if they expect such outbursts to occur.
Protestors who interrupt events are generally escorted from the room. When the hosts are silent they intimate that this behavior is acceptable and that there is no red line. Students of those who call fellow academics “collaborators” have even less ability to disagree with such hostility.
Incitement needs to feel at home to thrive. In society at large, and specifically at the university it is essential to nip it in the bud. Judging by the fact that the academics at the workshop were all laughing and enjoying themselves afterward with the man who shouted “collaborator,” it seems his behavior is endorsed, or at least tolerated, by many. Private acknowledgment that “that wasn’t right”, while a step in the right direction, is not enough. Our universities need to treat their forums like the civil debating halls of old and not allow the aggressive passions and lowest common denominator to dominate. That shames the academy in general.
The writer is engaged in Post-doctoral studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem