Hebrew University Tess Scheflan 9.12.08
A class at Hebrew University. Photo by Tess Scheflan
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Recent years have seen a number of attempts, primarily out of Britain, to boycott Israel’s universities. Sometimes the justification is that the universities are collaborating with the occupation of the West Bank; sometimes simply that this is an easy way to put pressure on Israel to finally stop the occupation. I have in the past argued that boycotting Israel’s universities goes against the spirit of academia, and that it is politically unwise, because it actually achieves the opposite of what it aims to achieve by weakening one of the institutions most identified with universalist values in Israel.

Paradoxically, the simultaneous campaign against Israel's universities waged by Israel's right wing actually lends credibility to the assertion that these academic institutions are actually bastions of enlightened ideals of objective neutrality. In accusing the academia of promoting anti-Zionist ideas, the direct opposite of what the European boycotters are claiming, Israel's right, of all groups, is actually proving the universities' neutrality.

It has been asserted that the universities are bastions of anti-Zionism, that don’t allow room for Zionist views and that are full of professors who are anti-Israeli self-hating Jews supplying Israel’s enemies with ammunition. There are right-wing websites that feature "galleries of rogues," - anti-Israel professors, intellectuals and pundits.

One right wing organization tried to pressure the president of Beer Sheva's Ben-Gurion University to fire left-wing lecturers by threatening to convince donors to withhold funds. And now Education Minister Gideon Saar and the Knesset education committee are looking into the possibility of establishing an ‘ethics code’ for Israel’s universities. Ostensibly this is intended to make sure that students and lecturers are not being intimidated for expressing right-wing views, and to make sure that the Zionist viewpoint is fairly represented in the curricula of the social sciences and humanities courses. In reality, it is a blatant attempt to exert political pressures on Israel’s universities.

If it were true that professors, whether affiliated with the left or the right, use their academic positions to promote their views, or that they intimidate students who dissent, this would indeed be unacceptable. So far the empirical evidence supporting this claim against the left is minimal, to say the least. Out of several hundred thousand anonymous student feedbacks at Tel Aviv University, 147 complaints of this sort were filed. The strategy employed by the right – calling Israeli universities McCarthyist bastions of the left - is a rather unsavory attempt to disguise that the opposite is true: McCarthyism is a good description for the attempt to pressure Israeli universities into promoting nationalist values.

Hence Israel’s universities are caught in the crossfire between Israel’s right and the European left. Both the European Left and Israel’s Right are violating the core values of academia. The European left wants professors to be actively engaged against the occupation; Israel’s right wants them to actively promote a Zionist agenda.

Neither of these is the task of a professor as professor. While academics, as citizens, are entitled to their political views like anyone else, it is not part of their job to promote these. It is our job to provide our students with knowledge that is well corroborated, and, more than anything, teach them to evaluate knowledge claims critically. It is neither our job to turn our students into Zionists nor into anti-Zionists.

I personally happen to hold rather well-defined liberal-Zionist political views, which I express regularly in the media, but I do not feel that it is my task as a professor to convince my students of these views. While I do not hide them – which would be rather futile, given that they are published - I believe it is my job to provide my students with intellectual tools with which they can analyze and critically evaluate theories and factual claims about any topic, including the Middle East conflict.

As part of my course on the topic, I often invite guest-lecturers from a wide spectrum of political views, ranging from the national-religious right to the post-Zionist left. I leave it up to my students, most of whom consider themselves to be center-left but also include some right-wing settlers and Israeli Arabs who strongly oppose Israel’s policies, to analyze the positions for intellectual and moral coherence.

The search for truth and critical thought are universal values that were promoted by enlightenment movements in India and classical Greece 2,500 years ago, in Islamic culture 1,100 years ago, and are the core message of modern European Enlightenment endorsed by many Jewish thinkers ranging from Albert Einstein to Emanuel Levinas. No totalitarian regime, whether on the right or on the left, ever welcomed these values, because totalitarianism is based on shutting down critical thought in all its forms.

The current attack on academic freedom in Israel coming from the right is unsettling and frightening, and the pressure aimed at ideological indoctrination will only mount. It will take courage and stamina to withstand this onslaught on Enlightenment values. So far Israeli universities have done so valiantly, and it is to be hoped that we will withstand the pressure exerted by Israel’s increasingly right wing political establishment and public opinion.

Anyone outside Israel who has, so far, doubted that Israel’s universities are upholding the ideals of impartial research, can see now that they do their best to uphold academic values. If Israeli universities didn’t refuse to bow to the dictates of nationalism, they wouldn’t be the targets of such a concerted effort of Israel’s right to control them. It is truly infuriating and disappointing that, instead of backing institutions that try to foster and protect the values of critical and free thought, anti-Israelis from the European left, under the guise of defending human rights, are undermining them by attacking institutions that promote free thought. In doing so, they betray the very values that they purport to defend.