Only Force Will Stop Force

If Yuval Steinitz and Gideon Sa'ar want Israeli Zhdanovism to be attributed to them, they should continue with their indolent attitude toward Im Tirtzu.

The threats and pressures on the universities were to be expected. The struggle in the academic world is an integral part of the cultural struggle started by the right, parallel to its political successes. People on the right understand that, just as in the United States and Europe, to survive for long and strike roots they must exploit the regime's institutions and destroy the left's hold on the educated sectors of the population.

Moshe Yaalon speaking at an Im Tirtzu meeting in 2009
Tess Scheflan

The right is correct in its diagnosis - the Israeli cultural world, including the universities, tends toward the left. It has been this way since World War II in the entire Western world. The centers of opposition to the war in Vietnam and the occupation of Iraq were the American universities; the Latin Quarter in Paris was the center of the struggle against the war in Algeria; and the student revolt of 1968 swept across America and Europe from California to the Berlin Wall.

In the West, however, the right began regaining its strength and gaining ascendancy in the form of neoconservatism, not especially in the universities but in the world of finance and the media. This has not been true of Israel, where many supporters of economic neoliberalism have fought against the occupation and the settlements and therefore belong to the "political left." That is why the right's grip on the secular cultural elite is close to zero; this is the real reason for the recent campaign of intimidation.

The struggle is taking place on two fronts. The Shalem Center is the academic arm and respected ideological laboratory, even if it is neither innovative nor original. The second arm consists of propagandists and demagogues from the Institute for Zionist Strategies and the Im Tirtzu student movement. The attempt to copy America has failed so far for one major reason - the Israeli neoconservative and nationalist right does not have scholars and cultural figures like its counterparts in the United States and Europe.

This sense of weakness and dissociation from the world of research, literature and art has spawned the current outburst of anger, and it is not the last. The real argument, however, is not with the propagandists but with the heads of the regime. The senior politicians know that there is no research without freedom, and they understand that a researcher's first commitment is to the truth as he finds it, or believes he has found it, in his work.

They know that academic teaching worth its name relies on research, and that intellectual and cultural life in Israel and its research institutes is the country's true showcase. But their future depends on the support of the street propagandists, and they will not man the barricades to defend the achievements of science and culture. Moral considerations will not help in this game, only considerations of force and immediate benefit. And as everyone knows, force can only be stopped by counterforce.

Therefore, it must be made clear to the finance minister, who called for the firing of university lecturers who support an academic boycott of Israel (which I strongly oppose), that any attempt to harm a lecturer's status for political reasons will meet with a firm response from Israel's academic faculty. The expected reaction from the international community, including the possibility of a boycott, could be no less painful.

It is worth explaining this to the education minister, because his plan to bring back talented researchers to Israel will have to address the following question: What researcher who grew up in an American academic environment will be eager to return to a reality that is starting to resemble the black years of the 1950s in the United States? Who will want to work in an institution that exercises the right of censorship to look into the syllabi of its courses? And how many Israelis pondering their future will decide that this is the straw that broke the camel's back?

If Yuval Steinitz and Gideon Sa'ar want Israeli Zhdanovism to be attributed to them, they should continue with their indolent attitude toward Im Tirtzu.