A Sociological Putsch

President of Tel Aviv University, Prof. Joseph Klafter, has his hands full weighing whether the institution he heads has become post-Zionist.


The president of Tel Aviv University, Prof. Joseph Klafter, has his hands full. Over the coming weeks he is supposed to examine the claim in a position paper by the Institute for Zionist Strategies that post-Zionist thinking has spread on his home turf, the sociology department.

If I were the university president, I would forgo the examination and agree immediately with the position paper. Presumably, even hopefully, the lecturers in the sociology department require their students to read articles and studies classified as "anti-Zionist." It's part of their job, after all, to instill in their students critical thinking, and that's exactly what post-Zionism does with respect to Zionism.

The position paper, however, also carries a message: Research pursued in the the syllabi of this country's universities has found a new name for the old and exhaustingly exploited enemy. So don't simply say "left," say "post-Zionism." This is fresh, and it sounds a lot more scientific and objective than plain old "leftist," "Israel hater" or Gideon Levy. Had the expression not existed for quite a while, the Institute for Zionist Strategies could have invented it.

Statements like "the leftist mafia has taken over the sociology departments" are indeed cheap rightist propaganda, but they're very old news. Every so often the right's sage of the moment arises and tries to prove the purported fact that the universities, the media or the courts are full of "leftists."

Labeling people leftists is supposed, according to the labelers, to knock the ground out from under their claims. The reasoning goes like this: Because they are leftists, they are opposed to the occupation or they see the Palestinians as the injured side in the conflict, so their arguments against the occupation or for the Palestinians cannot be taken seriously.

From revelations like that no one would manage to produce a newspaper headline that doesn't toe a clearly rightist line. A position paper on "The Left and Academia" wouldn't even be mentioned on the back pages.

But there are also people who are considered serious, like the education minister, and even scholarly, like the president of Tel Aviv University, who relate in all seriousness to statements like "The group of critical sociologists has gradually taken control of the sociology departments on some campuses - control that continues to this day despite the Israeli public's weak identification with their positions."

If we ignore this formulation for a moment, the document by the Institute for Zionist Strategies is saying what non-post-Zionist Prof. Anita Shapira predicted decades ago would happen at the universities as a natural part of the generational change in research: Every generation puts to the test the basic assumptions of the previous generation, and after the generation of Zionist researchers came the turn of the post-Zionists.

The way the document is formulated, however, shows that in the eyes of its formulators this is not a natural phenomenon. Rather, it's a bad thing that must be rooted out because what is happening here is a hostile takeover by the elders of post-Zionism who are threatening to poison the wells.

Fortunately, at least the heroic Jews at Bar-Ilan University have had the strength to withstand the "presumption to undermine the foundations of the Zionist ethic," or in plain words, to refresh the syllabus a bit.

This, from the outset, is what the debate between the Zionists and the post-Zionists is about. While the former seek to preserve a single and clearly defined narrative of Zionism as "a land without a people for a people without a land," and of Israel as the land of the Jewish people, the post-Zionists also seek to describe alternative narratives taking into account the people who lived here before us. They ask questions about the essence of Zionism as a national movement.

What the latter see as legitimate objects of research is perceived by the former as hanging the dirty laundry out in the middle of the street. It would seem that the reality isn't the problem but rather the way it is described, or, as they say in Polish - what will the neighbors say about us?