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Bar-Ilan University’s McCarthyist Values

The condemnation of a professor who dared to link together all the war’s victims without distinction emanates extreme nationalism and insensitivity.

Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan
Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan. Tomer Appelbaum

The McCarthyism spreading in Israel over the past few weeks is now starting to eat away at the country’s academic institutions. A brief preface to a technical announcement sent to students by a law professor at Bar-Ilan University set off a public storm, a demand for an apology and a condemnation by the university.

As Or Kashti reported in Haaretz on Tuesday, Prof. Hanoch Sheinman wrote that he hoped the email (about exam dates) “finds you in a safe place and that you, your families and those dear to you are not among the hundreds of people that were killed, the thousands wounded, or the tens of thousands whose homes were destroyed.”

The reference to war victims without distinguishing between their nationalities led students to complain of being “offended” and led the dean of the law school, Prof. Shahar Lifshitz, to issue a condemnation. Lifshitz justified the students’ complaints, wrote that he was shocked by his colleague’s remarks, described Sheinman’s letter as “hurtful” and promised to treat the matter “with the appropriate seriousness.” Lifshitz also demanded that Sheinman issue a public apology, saying that his words “contravene the values of the university and the law school.”

It’s hard to know what “values” Lifshitz was referring to in his announcement, but humanity and compassion are apparently not among them. The real values that emerge from the dean’s letter are extreme nationalism and insensitivity. Instead of being praised for the expression of humanity in his message — which dared to link together all the war’s victims without distinction, and without expressing a position on the war itself, thereby giving the students a lesson in values — Sheinman was turned into another target in the countrywide witch hunt. The heads of Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion universities already warned their respective faculty members against “extreme and inappropriate expressions” on the Internet. Now it seems that expressions that relate to all the war’s victims as human beings are considered extreme and inappropriate.

It’s not clear what Sheinman has to apologize for. It’s the university that should apologize, for trying to stamp out any expression that doesn’t toe the line it dictates as it tries to pander to its students’ nationalist caprices. Rather than reprimand Sheinman, Lifshitz should have defended him and the values he was trying to instill in his students.

Sheinman wrote an innocent, humane message. If Bar-Ilan University considers this a sin, it’s doubtful that the principle of free expression is upheld there at all.