Opinion

Who Determines What’s 'Political'

There is a clear bias in the new academic code in favor of the status quo, which is not perceived as political, but as neutral, which it isn’t

Students at Tel Aviv University.
David Bachar

In the short time since the publication of Prof. Asa Kasher’s proposal for an “Ethical Code for Proper Conduct in the Realm of Overlap Between Academic Activity and Political Activity,” there has been heavy criticism of the document.

Indeed, the proposal is totally misguided. It poses a threat to academic freedom and freedom of expression, and includes elements of Zhdanovism and McCarthyism. It poses serious dangers not just to academia, but to Israeli society as a whole.

But we must not only address the universal harm of the proposal but also its inherent bias, which involves understanding what is considered “political.”

Imagine a lecturer who speaks to his students about Israel being a democratic state – or perhaps Jewish and democratic – that is fulfilling the Zionist vision, and that the Declaration of Independence and basic laws constitute a basis for effective protection of civil rights within it. In the current reality, and if Kasher’s proposed ethics code is adopted, no one will accuse such a lecturer of making remarks that would be interpreted “by nature as political activity.”

On the other hand, another lecturer will tell his students that because of the military occupation that rules over an occupied population of millions, Israel doesn’t meet the most basic criteria of democracy, or at least there is broad doubt about it being a democracy. That same lecturer will state that Israel was established through the dispossession of the Palestinian people, as expressed by the Nakba, and that even today, despite the clause in the Declaration of Independence about equality, and despite the basic laws, Israel is essentially an “ethnocracy,” not a democracy.  Such a lecturer is likely to be perceived as dealing with politics during his classes and if Kasher’s code is adopted, he could face disciplinary measures.

Therefore, by limiting instruction considered political, there is a clear bias in favor of the status quo, which is not perceived as political, but as ostensibly neutral. Such a bias also exists regarding other subjects. For example, a lecturer who discusses ways to ensure the free acquisition of property and contracts and ways to protect these rights to ensure a free society, will generally not be thought of as dealing with politics. On the other hand, a lecturer who debates the question of how the right of private property and freedom of contract is part of the capitalistic order that preserves economic inequality is liable to be accused of being “political” and disseminating Marxist ideas.

Good teaching is never preaching and it’s always worthwhile to present the different sides in every debate. But the reality is such that the presentation of one side of the story alone is usually not seen as a political act if that side is identified with the status quo, while the very fact of presenting the other side of the story is seen as a political act. An important part of critical thinking, which is important not just to academia but to society at large, is to question and cast doubt on whether what exists is indeed inevitable, and to expose false necessities. But casting such doubts is considered a political statement, while backing the status quo will generally not be perceived as such.

For these reasons the people at the right-wing organization Im Tirtzu are thrilled with Kasher’s code; they know that implementing it will require accepting the bias regarding what positions are considered “political” and which are not. Therefore it’s a mistake to understand the code that comes from the school of Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett only in terms of undermining various rights. It must be understood as part of the effort to normalize the status quo and present it as the only option.

The code should be tossed into the trash, but even if it will not be, the damage has already been done. That this has been presented as “the spirit of the commander” is a dangerous development that could have a chilling effect that legitimizes McCarthyism.