After Character Assassination, My Response to Benny Ziffer

Prof. Rivka Feldhay hits back at Ziffer's claims of a contradiction between her political views and her agreement to participate in the Israeli government-sponsored Berlin event - even though she was banned at the last minute.

Haaretz writer Benny Ziffer begins his article "How Israel bought comic relief to Germany" (Haaretz, December 14) with the legitimate question: So why in fact did the scholar Rivka Feldhay agree to take part in the conference with Netanyahu and Merkel in the first place (if she is so opposed to the prime minsiter's policies)?

The answer that emerges from that article is that I did so to enjoy a trip abroad, a luxury hotel and a free meal. From his article I appear to be an odious person lacking integrity who collaborates with the government. That is character assassination. This, too, is permitted in a democracy, under two conditions: that there is factual basis and that the condemned person is given a chance for self-defense before the execution.

But Ziffer did not bother to ask me why I agreed to take part in the conference. He did not allow me to respond to his false accusations, nor did he check the facts. First he fired and then he invented in his fevered brain the target that he drew, which has nothing to do with reality and which clearly misleads readers.

If Ziffer had done the work that any novice journalist does, he would have discovered that the event I was invited to participate was not on the subject of academic freedom, but rather on scientific cooperation. The entire description in his article, which stated that the Israeli government initiated an event that would involve criticism of the government to prove the existence of a critical and actively protesting academic elite (thus participation in the event constitutes invidious collaboration with the government), is ridiculous and unfounded.

On the contrary: There is reason to believe my participation was cancelled by the prime minister for fear that I would voice criticism of the government’s conduct vis-a-vis the scientific realm.

To create the contradiction between my opinions and my agreement to take part in the event, Ziffer had to change my opinions, and turn me into a person with radical political views. Is a person who opposes the continued occupation and settlements and who expresses admiration for conscientious objectors (not one who calls for a refusal to serve) – a radical?

Or rather, is it the position a person should take who is committed to universal values of equality, liberty and freedom of conscience? It is true that the right in Israel marks everyone who opposes the occupation as radicals who have set themselves beyond the pale, who are not loyal to the state and who should be stoned to death. That does not make their position right or even legitimate.

As for the unbridled hedonism that he attributes to me (the desire to enjoy a trip abroad, a hotel and a meal) – that is a lie. I paid my own travel expenses (flight and hotel), I announced I would not be taking part in the reception for invitees the day before the event and I am not aware of any other meal in which I was to have taken part.

I agreed to take part in the conference, after wrestling with the decision, because I was invited by the German Embassy in Israel and the German government. For the past 25 years I have enjoyed fruitful scientific collaboration with German scholars, funded mainly by German foundations and the German government. I thought that when an event whose subject is scientific collaboration between the two countries – a subject on which I have something to say, it would be ungrateful of me to decline the invitation. I did not know when I was invited that my invitation required Netanyahu’s approval. Had I known this, I would not have agreed to attend.

Ziffer’s description of the event as amusing, and his depiction of it as Jews pulling out each other’s beads over an egg laid on the Sabbath, shows his lack of understanding. A person who does not understand the significance and implications of such an event for democracy, academic freedom and freedom of expression in Israel – does not know what he is talking about and does not understand the reality in which he operates.

Ziffer reaches the pinnacle when at the end of his article he equates me to Netanyahu and attributes a foul smell to both of us.

Professor Rivka Feldhay is the head of Tel Aviv University's Minerva Center for Human Rights and a senior member of the Israel Democracy Institute.

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