Opinion |

The Creeping Fascism of Israel’s Right-wingers

It’s not by chance the latest government target is Israel’s universities: Academia offers a constant challenge to their dream of social discipline in the Jewish state

Bernard Avishai
Bernard Avishai
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Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, speaks in Ashdod, Israel.  Dec. 26, 2012
Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, speaks in Ashdod, Israel. Dec. 26, 2012 Credit: AP
Bernard Avishai
Bernard Avishai

Israeli universities are under a concerted attack from rightists in government masquerading as political ‘neutrals.’

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is not coincidentally head of a party called “Jewish Home,” is pushing a “code of ethics” for Israeli academics to prohibit political opinions being voiced in class, including “specific positions in a known public dispute.”

The code would also forbid universities from partnering with political organizations that advocate any form of boycott (including, according to government precedent, the boycott of settlements and of Ariel University, situated in the West Bank), and authorizing universities "to establish a unit that would monitor political activity" on campus.

The ostensible targets of this code would be professors who foist specific party affiliations on students, though I have never met a professor who’s done this. But the real target of Israel’s government is the justifiable, inevitable affinity of academic communities for liberal principles in general.

In part, academics’ affinity for liberal ideas derives from their being intellectual nonconformists: we emphasize personal freedom, we’re skeptical of appeals to the pack, we believe that minds grow, and we support secular principles over the coercive faith traditions.

But the greater reason for this affinity is that the modern university is inherently a liberal institution. To keep a democratic republic going, you're always going to have to move against the current. The university is the place you learn to swim, not so much in what you learn, but how you learn. Personal freedom, skepticism, erudition, rules of evidence, equality, secularism—you might as well be describing the very foundations of the classroom experience. It is meant to incubate doubt and mentoring and merit.

It is a radically liberal society in microcosm.

Think, in this context, of the revolt in so many university faculties, especially in America, against the demand for conformity coming from students: the creation of campus safe-spaces or the demand for trigger-warnings.

The idea that it is incumbent on professors not to make students feel “uncomfortable” seems a debasement of the process of learning itself. We have the obligation to make our arguments coherent, sincere, and ground them in facts that can be checked. We do not have obligation to be right, because truth of that kind is impossible. Truth-telling is also a process. When we are right, writes John Stuart Mill, then we convey “a piece of the truth.” When wrong, we force our students to make arguments against us, and thus to hold their more truthful views vividly and memorably.

The university, in this sense, is this strange, subversive community that democratic republics plant down in the middle of themselves to protect themselves against the primordial communities—what Hegel called the Family. It isn't an accident that Benjamin Franklin founded the University of Pennsylvania or that Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia. It isn't an accident that the first great institution the cultural Zionists founded was the Hebrew University.

The university is not just a place you get the accumulated best of what is believed. It is the place the very idea of “best” is pulped, so that the community can regenerate itself more adaptively. "Education," the great University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins said, "is not to reform students or amuse them or to make them expert technicians. It is to unsettle their minds, widen their horizons, inflame their intellects..."

Tel Aviv UniversityCredit: Ofer Vaknin

That's why Israel's rightists can't let go of academia. I don’t mean genuine conservatives (like Hutchins) who would, like most of my colleagues, be concerned to preempt professors who would throw-off unsupported opinions, or demand a party line—though government officials, interfering with classroom intimacy, would be far more likely to do such things. Indeed, the threat is from pseudo-conservatives, neoconservatives, neurotic nationalists, and neo-Zionists who are fed up with the very ethos of universities—fed up, that is, with classrooms in which all ideas, including Zionist ideas, are pushed around.

In this sense, the university is inherently a political institution as well. Assa Kasher, who wrote the ethics code, and Naftali Bennett, who commissioned it, do not concede that their code is political, too. Particularly in the Israeli context, where occupation is normalized, phrases like “Jewish and democratic” enter unexamined into law - and Jewish homes presume state privileges for J-positive blood - the ambient freedoms of the classroom (like the ordinary liberalism most American Jews take for granted in their universities, and from their state) will seem radically, unspeakably "left."

The Israeli right, in other words, is not concerned about economic freedom or educational rigor. It wants social discipline. The activists of Im Tirtzu, Bennett’s Jewish Home, and others, want their world to make sense; they want their leaders to be strong and noble, their ancestors to be mythic, their God to be magic, their sexual desires contained, their enemies defeated.

They want reverse trigger-warnings: from students and government watchdogs to faculty. What is creeping fascism in Israel if not the values of sweet, faithful children projected onto our politics—the idea that country is a kind of family, good means loyal and self-sacrificing, our leaders protect us, and there’s no place like Jewish Home?

For rightists of this kind, the university is just the kindergarten's finishing school—the place where received wisdoms are received most persuasively, presumably along with quantitative methods, and freedom is the recognition of necessity. They think of education as the way the nation instructs new generations in the values (also above-averageness) of the nation.

They rail against professors who are intolerant. What they really can’t stand are professors who, by nature and professional commitment, refuse to tolerate their intolerance.

Bernard Avishai teaches business at Hebrew University and political economy at Dartmouth College. He is the author of, among other books, The Hebrew Republic, and writes regularly for The New Yorker.

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