Academic Freedom in Israel: A Comparative Perspective
Prof. Ofira Seliktar
Lecture for the Round table; Israel Academia Monitor, May 3, 2013
When Dana Barnett approached me about doing a project on Academic Freedom in Israel in a comparative perspective, I have worked on a larger project on Delegitimization of Israel. Unlike ordinary criticism of Israel, the delegitimization campaign is part of Soft Asymmetrical Conflict (SAC). The Pentagon defines SAC as a campaign to delegitimize the target country and to improve the image of the challenge group and the causes it represents.
The anti -Israel SAC involved an extensive, complex, multilayered, interlocking and well-financed network. Its components include NGOs, UN-based forums, EU-sponsored entities, sovereign governments, religious organizations, academic associations, scholars, committees, conferences, symposia, journals and presses.
Michel Foucault developed the idea of soft asymmetrical conflict by inverting the idea of famous dictum of Clausewitz that “war is a continuation of politics by other means” to read” politics is war by other means.” Foucault and his disciplines considered the “discursive arena” as a battlefield; using critical approaches, intellectuals and scholars can delegitimize “hegemonic” narrative and substitute it with the narrative of the of the powerless and suppressed strata in the society.
The core of the delegimitzation is in the academy, since it is the academic paradigms that structure our view of social reality. There are two paradigms that are currently used in liberal arts (humanities and social sciences)
Positivist: “Truth” is arrived at through a discursive-pedagogical process with fixed rules, including objectivity and neutrality. The liberal arts classroom becomes the “marketplace of ideas.”
Neo-Marxist, Critical: There is no social “truth,” there are “narratives,” critical scholars need to expose the “hegemonic” narrative” of the dominant classes. The scholar is urged to use teaching and research to advance social justice and other progressive issues.
While the neo-Marxist, critical paradigm made its debut in liberal arts in the late 1960s, it was Edward Said who introduced it to Middle East studies in his famous book Orientalism. Not accidently, Said thanks Foucault and the Egyptian neo-Marxist scholar Samir Amin for inspiring him to write the book.
Predictably, Israel looks very different in the two paradigms.
Israel in the positivist paradigm:
Membership/territory: Jews are an authentic ethno-religious community rooted in its ancestral Biblical home; Authority system: western-style liberal democracy (as ranked by Freedom House); Distributive justice system: Market economy.
Israel in the neo-Marxist, Critical Paradigm:
Membership/territory: Jews are an “invented people” with no legitimate right to an ancestral (Biblical) home; Authority system: Israel is a “Herrenvolk” democracy limited to Jews, an apartheid state modeled on South Africa; Distributive justice system: a capitalist system that exploits workers, the Mizrahim, women and Palestinians.
There are a number of reasons why the neo-Marxist, critical paradigm and its depiction of Israel has become so successful in Israel. One of them is that Israeli scholars who operate within this paradigm have been part of the anti-Israel SAC and have benefited from its vast resources. For instance, the probability of publishing a book or an article reflecting the neo-Marxist, critical paradigm is probably six to seven times higher than a comparable work in the positivist paradigm. Critical scholars have a much better chance to spend sabbatical leave in Ivy League universities than positivist scholars.
Another and arguably the most important reason is the expansive academic freedom that Israeli faculty enjoys as opposed to their peers in other countries. This relation makes sense since today “Israel in the Middle East has become the litmus test of freedom of faculty, replacing such older test cases as IQ of African-American etc.
To test this proposition the study compared Israel to three countries – Germany, Great Britain and the United States (public universities). All three of them have influenced the educational system of Israel and all three are academic leaders.
There are three factors that shape the amount of academic freedom of a given country: 1) cultural-academic history; 2) case law and the amount of government intervention; 3) transition to management (corporate) university.
Academic freedom in Germany has been rather restricted because of #1- the democratic reeducation campaign has restricted certain topics such as denial of the Holocaust or denying the guilt of Hitler and the Nazi Party in starting the war, the Constitutional Court is in charge of overseeing academic expression, German professors are considered government employees and thus not allowed to stray too far from their field of expertise. The transition to Management University also meant that economic and business considerations have to be taken into consideration, business people have been appointed to the boards of governors of universities.
Academic Freedom in Great Britain has been greatly constrained by the Education Reform Act instituted by the Thatcher Government. Traditional tenure was abolished, making faculty less likely to speak out on controversial issues; stringent quality control of faculty and department makes is harder for faculty to engage in politics.
In response to the growing anti-Semitism in Europe, the European Union Monitoring Center has proposed a “Working Definition of anti-Semitism:” which states that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism. The definition was adopted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. As a result, certain expressions such as comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, known as “nazification of Israel” are considered new anti-Semitism.
In the United States public universities (known as state universities) have enjoyed more limited freedom than private universities. The governor appoints the board of directors and the board of directors appoints the president of the state university. State legislatures demand accountability for the budgetary allocation to the universities. Case law plays a large role in dictating the limits of freedoms; for instance, a district court ruling decreed that a faculty member cannot call for sanctions that would undermine his/her institution and have an adverse impact on the higher education system. Even at the height of the Vietnam War, there was no faculty call to boycott the United States. Balanced view on the Middle East is required of all public and private universities that receive Title IV federal grants.
In Israel, academic freedom is very broad because of the unique historical circumstances surrounding the founding of the Hebrew University. Judah Magnes, the founder and president of HUJ and most of the influential professors, including Martin Buber were anti-Zionists. The HUJ was financially supported by a group of wealthy donors from the anti-Zionist Council for American Judaism. Magnes and his professors did not consider themselves to be accountable to the Jewish community in Palestine, but to a greater universal ideal of pursuit of academic excellence. As a result, they refused the request of Ben Gurion to add applied science and technology departments. Even after the independent state was created that supported the higher education budget, the attitude that the academy is not accountable to the state persisted. The Maltz Report that suggested a transition to a Thatcher style management university was only partially implemented due to fierce resistance of faculty.
As a result, there is a very broad scope of academic freedom in Israel in both the intramural (within the classroom) dimension and the extramural (outside the campus dimension)
Israeli scholars can compare Israel to Nazi Germany with impunity, something that they cannot do in EU or the United States (public universities) without taking a serious professional risk.
Before the Knesset law, Israeli scholars could call (and some still do) for boycott of Israel, an action that would not be tolerated in other countries. As a matter of fact, radical Israeli scholars were among the architects of the boycott, divestment and sanction movement (BDS) against Israel. Other faculty were involved in demanding that IDF commanders be tried for war crimes.
Israeli scholars switch from research in the field for which they were hired in order to “research” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something that would not be tolerated in other countries.
Liberal arts in Israel have paid a heavy price for this state of affair.
v The frequently heard assertions that restriction on academic freedom will lead to a lower quality of education is not born out empirically: Israeli liberal arts, especially social sciences, are trending well below average.
v Students are not well served by faculty using their classroom as a platform for political indoctrination rather than a “marketplace of ideas.”
v Taxpayers and society are not well served by faculty who abandon their field of research to engage in writings which support their political agenda. It should be emphasized that this would not be tolerated in the comparative cases.
The Case of the Department of Politics and Government at BGU
The case of the Department of Politics and Government at BGU has introduced a unique complication to the system of higher education in Israel.
BGU appealed to the international community of scholars to prevent the closing of the department.
The strategy was allegedly conceived by the Dean David Newman (as revealed in a leaked e-mail published by Israel Hayom.
The response of the international community was swift and overwhelming; some 40 professional associations and hundreds of individual scholars, including at least one Nobel laureate , sent letters and petitions to the Minister of Education and the Council of Higher Education (CHE, or Malag) to protest the proposed closure. The fact that academic associations which normally act at a glacial pace have responded so fast has been most interesting.
Of course, it is difficult to speculate on the final decision of the Malag- but there is a possibility that it was influenced by this massive protest; if this is indeed the case, the BGU affair created a unique precedent in annals of higher education in the sense that Israel lost some sovereignty over its higher education system. There is no comparable case of such massive intervention in the educational system of another country.
Such massive intervention did not happen in a vacuum; it is part and parcel of the campaign to delegitimize Israel which as I noted, has originated on the campuses.