Strenger Than Fiction A Triumph of Academic Freedom at Tel Aviv University

Behind the scenes a drama unfolded last week which could have done enormous damage to Tel Aviv University, Israel’s higher education system and to Israel as a country.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Behind the scenes a drama unfolded last week which could have done enormous damage to Tel Aviv University, to Israel’s higher education system and to Israel as a country.

Alan Dershowitz in Tel Aviv, January 24, 2001Credit: Archive

A few members of Tel Aviv University's board of governors were pushing for a change in the statutes that would have allowed or even required the university to censor or possibly fire professors involved in activity perceived as harming Israel, e.g. by supporting global motions to boycott Israeli universities.

One of the proponents of the motion to limit academic freedom at Tel Aviv University argued that, while academic freedom is important, Israel is under existential threat, and hence discipline must be enforced.

This is a dangerous and defeatist position. Israel does have enemies. But we must not heed this call and remember what Franklin Delano Roosevelt, at a crucial moment in American history, said: ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself’.

My point of view is this: professors who think that the university where they teach is involved in such immoral activities that it should be boycotted, should act on their views and resign. Nevertheless, while I find their position distasteful, I defend their right to voice their views, and thus join Tel Aviv University President Prof. Joseph Klafter in his principled stance: he empathizes with the anger of many Diaspora Jews against academics who draw their salaries from Israeli Universities while calling to boycott them, but he is adamant that the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom must not be compromised.

A claim has been made that Prof. Klafter cut the discussion about the motion short, thus curtailing the freedom of speech of the board of governors. I was there, and can testify that nothing of the sort happened: an incisive hour-long discussion took place, during which the proponents of the motion had ample time to state their case. They were a small minority; most of the speakers, both from abroad and from Israel, including a number of senior faculty, emphasized the phenomenal danger in this motion. The danger of playing around with sacred principles of freedom speech and academic freedom, as Alan Dershowitz emphasized in the meeting before.

Furthermore, Israel’s status as a democracy would have been harmed irretrievably if the motion had been approved. The overwhelming majority was in favor of dropping the motion altogether, and applauded Prof. Klafter’s suggestion to do so.

Two clarifications are in order. Prof. Dershowitz has contributed greatly to the success of dismissing this motion. In two recent speeches he made clear that freedom of speech and academic freedom must be held sacred while expressing his distaste for Israeli supporters of the boycott. He also spoke against the intimidation of students on the basis of their political views. A number of my colleagues at Tel Aviv University seem to have interpreted his remarks as a reference to Tel Aviv University, something I believe to be a misunderstanding: I took his remarks to be a reference to situations he has encountered in the U.S.

My colleagues’ sensitivity is understandable: the myth that Tel Aviv University Professors intimidate students on the basis of their right-wing views keeps being perpetuated, for example by Brenda Katten, public relation chair for WIZO. This allegation was proven to be entirely fabricated in an in-depth investigation conducted by the Rector of Tel Aviv University last December.

Tel Aviv University has an electronic feedback system through which students anonymously evaluate their teachers' performance (to make sure that they can speak their minds). It turned out that 140 complaints were filed by students who felt they were being harassed for their right-wing views. Most of the complaints were against three professors. Tel Aviv University has 25,000 students and 1,000 senior faculty, hence every year there are several hundred thousand feedbacks. That means that less than one of one thousand evaluations included complaints about this issue. But this simply doesn’t bother those who continue to perpetuate this myth.

There is one point on which I disagree with Alan Dershowitz: it is regrettable that he has repeated the false accusation that TAU historian Shlomo Sand denies the authenticity of the Jewish people and the legitimacy of the State of Israel, something that nobody who has actually read Sand’s book would claim. As I have addressed these insinuations against Sand in the past, I’ll just restate briefly: Sand indeed claims that many aspects of the Zionist narrative are historically problematic, but he emphasizes that in this Israel is no different than national narratives of other countries ranging from France and Switzerland to Indonesia.

Sand’s explicit goal is to safeguard Israel as a democracy with Jewish character, and he believes that holding on to the territories precludes that. In this he takes the same line as Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whom nobody accuses of denying Israel’s legitimacy.

In the end, beyond the small disagreements, one thing truly matters: the consensus of the overwhelming majority of the board of governors, Prof Klafter, Prof. Dershowitz and the faculty of Tel Aviv University that freedom of speech and academic freedom are sacred, and must not be tampered with. Those who prefer censorship and other undemocratic means to open discussion are caving in to fear. The resistance of the board of governors, the president and faculty to their pressure is a triumph of academic freedom and the democratic right to freedom of speech.



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