Anti-war Academics Hold Conference at Tel Aviv University

Hundreds attend 'How to think about the war,’ organized in response to administration’s warning letter.

Students walking at Tel Aviv University.
David Bachar

In response to Tel Aviv University’s recent letter “embrac[ing] the security forces” and threatening disciplinary action against students and employees expressing “hurtful and extremist statements” in social media, the university’s social science department held a conference before a packed hall this week titled, “How to think about the war.”

“We have to make an effort and cleanse the area of the endless security-oriented and patriotic talk, not only because we are sick and tired of it, but because it is designed to shut down and prevent thinking. Thinking is the most urgent thing in this war, and the most lacking. Many institutions are working to block it, like the media, for example,” said the Hebrew Culture Department’s Prof. Ishay Rosen-Zvi, who initiated the conference.

He told Haaretz, “After the letter from the university administration, we felt that we were being silenced. In addition, the public discourse in the media was uniform and monotonous, and we felt that we were being lied to all the time.”

During Operation Protective Edge, the administration sent out a letter stating, “Tel Aviv University embraces the security forces and condemns hurtful reactions on the social networks,” and “strongly condemns hurtful and extremist statements which are being disseminated these days on the social networks, and which have no place in the public discourse.” The letter also warned that the administration “will operate according to the disciplinary regulations applying to students and employees, in every case of a violation.”

Hundreds of students, lecturers and auditors attended the conference, which was notable since this is summer vacation, and because the event was not publicized in mainstream media, only by word of mouth and on social networks.

‘Very frightening’

In his speech, Rosen-Zvi said, “I want to single out two things that seem new and very frightening to me. First, the death of soldiers no longer creates the same public pressure as in the past. It’s a new mechanism and different from what we knew, when coffins created a sense of revulsion that led to criticism and media pressure. It seems that now death creates togetherness and at the same time invites more death in order to justify it.

“Second,” he said, “I want to single out the normality of violence against the left. At anti-war demonstrations in which I participated there were Kahanist gangs walking around shouting ‘death to Arabs and leftists,’ and chasing demonstrators to beat them up, and they did beat them up. People were afraid to disperse and avoided walking home alone. Nobody was shocked and they aren’t now either, the condemnations were against extremism of all types, from both right and left, as though right-wing journalists also walk around with bodyguards.” This last was a reference to Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, who hired a bodyguard after receiving numerous threats over his critical writing and interviews about the war.

Dr. Raif Zarik of TAU’s Minerva Center for Humanities spoke out against Israel’s killing of innocents in Gaza. “It’s hard for me to be persuaded that the harming of civilians is undesirable in the eyes of many Israelis, when the air is thick with slogans of ‘death to the Arabs.’ It’s hard to be persuaded that this is unwanted collateral damage. I have every reason, although I have no proof, to think that this war is a war against our people.”

Prof. Menachem Lorberbaum, chairman of the graduate school of philosophy, criticized Givati Brigade commander Col. Ofer Winter, who reportedly justified the massive civilian casualties resulting from the assault on the Rafah area following the abduction of 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, who was later declared dead by Israeli authorities. Lorberbaum quoted Winter saying that “whoever kidnaps has to know that he will pay a price. It was not revenge. They simply started up with the wrong brigade. ... This population is hostage, but I think that it’s also a partner. ... I’m not absolving them of responsibility so quickly.”

‘Killing civilians is Givati’s glory?’

Said Lorberbaum: “These are very harsh words. Is there a difference between ‘revenge’ and starting up with ‘the wrong brigade’? Does the glory of the Givati Brigade lie in the terrible killing of all the civilians? Didn’t they stop being civilians the moment the brigade commander declared that the population is a partner? And who allowed him to do that? And who exactly among them [is a partner]? The children and infants? The women?”