U.S. Professors Who Fight Boycott of Israel Slam Plans to Gag Political Speech in Academia

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Students at Bar-Ilan University. Chances of Mizrahim attaining a higher education are 2.6 to 3 times lower than for Ashkenazim.
Students at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A group of American professors and scholars active in fighting boycott campaigns against Israeli academics has issued a strong condemnation of a proposed ethics code that would impose significant restraints on freedom of expression at Israeli institutes of higher education.

In a statement published this week on its website, the Alliance for Academic Freedom, an organization comprised mainly of Jewish faculty, described the controversial ethics code as “an effort to impose fundamental and wholly unacceptable government constraints on faculty political speech and, more broadly, to radically circumscribe the authority of Israeli academic institutions to do their work.”

The new regulations, the statement warns, “aim to substitute government intervention and outside political control for principles that have sustained higher education’s intellectual independence and helped give Israel a college and university system of the highest caliber.”

The ethics code was drafted by Asa Kasher, a Tel Aviv University professor of philosophy and ethics, at the request of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party. Widely perceived as an attempt to curtail left-wing discourse on university campuses, the proposed regulations have drawn fire from Israeli academics.

The main cause of outrage is a regulation that would ban “political activity” in the classroom and the extremely broad interpretation given to this term. “Political activity” is defined in the proposal as espousing “a particular point of view in a recognized public dispute.”

Prof. Asa Kasher, who drafted a code of ethics for Israel's universities.Credit: Kobi Gideon/BauBau

The Education Ministry insists, in its defense, that its intent was not to target left-wing professors, many of whom are extremely vocal critics of the government. Rather, it says, the purpose of this new code of ethics is to keep all politics out of the classroom – whether left or right. In formulating his recommendations, however, Kasher made no secret of the fact that he consulted with members of the right-wing organization Im Tirtzu. Neither is it a secret that Israel’s right-wing government views the country’s universities as bastions of left-wing opposition, and therefore, a threat.

Established three years ago, AAF describes itself as a group of “scholars and academics who reject the notion that one has to be either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian.” To encourage critical thinking about the conflict, the organization notes on its website that “we insist on the importance of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange, and so reject calls for academic boycotts and blacklists, as well as efforts to punish academics for their political speech, including even those who support the academic boycotts that we oppose.”

The group has roughly 200 members, among them prominent names in the field of Jewish studies, such as David Myers of UCLA; Derek Penslar of Harvard; Steven M. Cohen of the faculty at Hebrew Union College; Hasia Diner of New York University; Susannah Heschel, a member of the faculty at Dartmouth College; and Jack Kugelmass of the University of Florida. AAF is affiliated with Ameinu, a progressive Zionist organization. On its website, the group says it opposes the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and supports a two-state solution.

The statement against the ethics code was drafted by Cary Nelson, a former president of the AAUP, the American Association of University Professors, who serves as AAF's chairman. In an email to Haaretz, Nelson said the statement aimed, among other things, to prove that the proposed ethics code “is NOT consistent with AAUP policy, despite claims in Israel to the contrary.”

He said the statement had been sent to all Israeli university heads and was being circulated among academic associations in the United States. The six-page document, he said, was “so far as we know, the only full analysis of the proposal.”

The AAF statement takes particular aim at a regulation in the code of ethics that would prohibit Israeli faculty from participating in academic boycotts of Israel or calling on others to do so. “Not only is that rule unacceptable in principle: it is also an Orwellian constraint on speech,” it states. “If you cannot advocate for a boycott, can you advocate against it? If you cannot encourage students in a political science course to be critical of the weaknesses of Israeli democracy, can you encourage them to respect its strengths and achievements? Or is only one political stand acceptable in higher education?”

“Eviscerating political debate,” it goes on to warn, “would eviscerate Israeli higher education.”

The statement describes the proposed ban on holding political discussions unrelated to the subject of a particular course as “inhumane.”

“When the Six-Day War broke out or Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, Israeli students or faculty might well have thought it imperative to set aside the day’s chemistry lecture and talk about the only thing that mattered that day,” it notes. “So too for U.S. students and faculty when Pearl Harbor was attacked or Martin Luther King was assassinated."

“From those catastrophic examples one may move to more prosaic instances when a class could spend time on something entirely outside the syllabus—perhaps an impending vote on a divestment resolution, or a decision about how Nakba Day might be celebrated,” a reference to the day marking the displacement of the Arabs who fled or were expelled from their homes during Israel’s War of Independence. “Once these necessary freedoms are conceded, realistic, rather than insistently idealist, standards for fundamentally political subjects logically follow.”

The AAUP has already issued a joint statement with the American Federation of Teachers condemning the proposed ethics code. “The ‘code of ethics’ that the government of Israel is considering for the country’s academic institutions is a threat not only to academic freedom in Israel, but to Israel’s standing as a democracy,” it warned. “We join with colleagues in Israel’s Association of University Heads, and with the National Union of Israeli Students, in condemning it.”

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