Declaring War on Academia

Im Tirtzu has taken over political discourse in Israel, and injected into it the crazy idea of the internal enemy

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Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaking in January 2017.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaking in January 2017.Credit: Moti Milrod

The code of ethics composed by Prof. Asa Kasher at the behest of Education Minister Naftali Bennett is a bad solution to an imaginary problem, dreamed up by the right-wing organization Im Tirtzu. It was this group that Kasher consulted in composing the document, as he stated in it. The party that Bennett leads, Habayit Hayehudi, has for some time operated as the political arm of Im Tirtzu. Kasher even took the trouble to note in Article 5(D) of the code that the guidelines that he recommends reflect proper conduct and do not “in the slightest” reflect the current situation. Thus the very search for a solution to the “problem” is in itself a political assault on academia, out of an intent to silence those who think differently than Im Tirtzu and Habayit Hayehudi.

Im Tirtzu has taken over political discourse in Israel, and injected into it the crazy idea of the internal enemy. The ethical code is directed against this imaginary enemy, with a simple goal: to silence and frighten him. This discourse creates the false impression that the universities are hotbeds of the imaginary enemy ideology, and that the wild incitement in them must be stopped. Bennett is not one bit interested in higher education itself; he is only taking advantage of the Education Ministry’s control to silence and frighten opponents of the occupation wherever they are, and encourage a culture of informing on others by means of establishing a thought police. (“Every institution will establish a unit to supervise and oversee political activities in the institution.”)

Kasher says that the code is only to apply in the realm of possible overlap of academic activities and political activities. But the boundary between the two is not always clear, especially in the social sciences, the humanities and law. The definition of political activity that he provides is ambiguous (“any activity that directly supports a certain position in a known public controversy, which is continually manifest in the Knesset and in public discourse, with a clear association to a party or parties, in or outside of the Knesset, or direct opposition to such a position”). And the definition of academic activity is too broad (also including activity in an institution of higher education “outside the framework” of the academic institution to which the faculty member belongs). The result is that interpreters of the code will be able to include anything they want under its definitions.

“The issue is not against any political side, it is sweeping, both to the right and the left, and hence no side has a reason to oppose it,” Bennett’s office said in a response statement. That is a lie. Israel established a university in occupied territory; lecturers there are involved up to their neck in political activity even before they open their mouths. Bennett may have used this lie to recruit Kasher to the task of intellectual treachery he imposed on him. Only an organized campaign of resistance and solidarity that involves all of the institutions of higher education can stop this dangerous assault on academia and on freedom of expression.