Academic Silence

The education minister's recent remarks will only exacerbate the deterioration of Israeli democracy itself.

The education minister's comments last week that he intends to "examine the issues raised" in a report by the on-campus advocacy group Im Tirtzu on academia's putatively anti-Zionist bent represents another step in the deterioration of Israel's cultural, political and educational culture.

 Gideon Sa'ar
Nir Kedar

Gideon Sa'ar's remarks, which singled out supposed trends within university and college political science departments, must be rejected out of hand. There are still many academics who seek to uphold the values of Israel's government and civil society and its democratic principles. On the other hand, there are several reasons behind the growing silence of academics on cultural and political issues. Today only a few scholars are unafraid to air their opinions on the country's social and political decay.

From the state's founding until the present day, the influence of academia on the ideologies of political factions across the spectrum, and on Israel's culture of governance, has been relatively minor. Over the years, only a smattering of scholars have dared publicly criticize government policy or call for social change. In recent years, the left has been considerably weakened and has largely stepped back from the cultural and political scene, while the right exerts increased authority over the political establishment.

Israeli society is broadly moving toward either rightist views or political apathy, as are many academics. Even those who research the country's political society have been shifting toward accepting the policies of the current government - positions largely based on self-serving economic and financial interests. This tendency is bolstered by growing indifference toward troubling developments within the social and political establishment - indifference linked to rising individualism, excessive concern for one's personal well-being and a lack of concern for that of the collective.

The heads of institutions of higher learning are afraid to voice opposition or criticism of the government largely because of the legal and economic dependence of most colleges and universities - and the academics themselves - on those same official bodies. They are also cognizant of the ongoing struggle over the state's demands for organizational and financial reforms at academic institutions. Additionally, university and college presidents, rectors, deacons, department heads and administrators dare not express social or political criticism in public for personal and ideological reasons. Defense and security research institutions are generally set up and run by active or retired military men, and the reports they issue and events they host tend to refrain from adequately criticizing developments in those fields.

More than ever before, critical academics in Israel are finding it hard to express themselves to the media. While in the past scholars could have relatively easily aired their views on radio or television, or in the printed press, now they encounter difficulties in having their messages widely heard.

These developments have resulted in a kind of paralysis among academics, allowing politicians like Sa'ar to unjustifiably attack academia as a whole. The education minister's recent remarks will only exacerbate the deterioration of Israeli democracy itself.


The writer is a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.