In 1927, Julien Benda published his book “La Trahison des Clercs” (“The Treason of the Intellectuals”), which soon became a classic. In it, he was scathingly critical of intellectuals, mainly French intellectuals but Germans and others as well, who, from the time of the Dreyfus affair through World War I and the crises that followed it, betrayed their raison d’être: defending universal values. At the time, fascism was already in power in Italy; Germany’s Weimar Republic was on the brink of collapse; and in France an incitement to hatred campaign against Jews and – how not? – leftists was being waged against the country’s liberal heritage, culminating with the anti-Semitic Vichy government’s “National Revolution.”
Ninety years ago, Benda’s manifesto was directed at intellectuals – writers, artists, professors, journalists – as creators of culture. Today the circle of intellectuals includes consumers of culture too. An intellectual is any thinking person who has absorbed culture and is therefore not prepared to uncritically swallow propaganda, demagoguery and lies.
These are the people who should be the first to rise up against the erasure of the principle that all people are entitled to the same rights to liberty and equality. Those who refute this principle are formally turning Israel into an apartheid state. And such a situation calls for revolt. The time for analysis is over. All that can be said about the nation-state law has been said, and now the time has come to prepare means to combat it and start putting them to use.
There are two fronts in this battle: On the domestic front, every person, every group, every organization, every political party that is aware that this law changes the face of Israel, must be ready to play a part in a broad, bold and open protest. If we were truly an open society imbued with universal values, we would have already seen a general uprising encompassing the universities and colleges and National Academy of Sciences, as well as teachers’ organizations and parents’ committees and youth movements. If we really felt this was a burning issue, Rabin Square would have been filled with protesters long ago.
When basic universal values, which are the lifeblood of a healthy society, are trampled, the usual inhibitions and traditional rules of self-restraint and neutrality are no longer relevant. Academic institutions cannot become completely insular, because they do not exist solely to supply knowledge, but to fight for this country’s future. The National Academy of Sciences does not only exist to serve as something like a House of Lords that produces biannual reports on the state of the sciences here, but also to fight to shape this society. It would be appropriate for the Israeli social sciences and humanities professional associations to express a protest and to urge their international counterparts to follow suit.
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Experience has shown us that the right does not abide by the rules of the game, it respects only power. The nation-state law is a crude use of power to deny the human rights of non-Jewish Israelis. It is therefore illegitimate and resistance is called for. Every opponent of this apartheid law who has connections abroad must use them to ring warning bells. The international front also requires an immediate investment of energy and resources: writing articles for newspapers, making media appearances, holding open conferences in places like Brussels and other EU capital cities, as well as intensive activity at universities. The world expects people who have earned renown in their fields to use it for the general good as well, and not only for self-promotion.