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Sifting And Winnowing

Guy Beiner

Out of the Frame: the Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel, by Ilan Pappé, Pluto Press, 256 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0745327259

Among countless leaflets regularly handed out to passers-by, in December 2010 an intriguing sheet of paper was distributed on several campuses in Israel. It appeared to be a petition addressed to the minister of education, the chairman of the Israeli parliamentary education committee and the head of the Institute for Zionist Strategies. Phrased as a form, which required the petitioner to fill in the blanks, it read in translation:

(Check the appropriate square)

As a loyal subject of the Jewish and Democratic State I would like to bring to your attention that in the Hebrew University , Tel Aviv University , Ben-Gurion University  there are subversive activities going on that endanger the character of the State.

(Write in clear handwriting)

On date __/__/____ lecturer name:_________ in course no. ______

(Mark the appropriate square with an X)

 Expressed criticism of State institutions, provide details:

 Expressed criticism of one of the State’s leaders, provide details:

 Permitted students to voice non-Zionist opinions

 Cast doubt on an action of the Israeli Defence Forces

 Encouraged students to think independently and critically

 Identified with the suffering of non-Jews, in the past/present (circle as appropriate)

 Cited in class an unapproved text

As a tuition-paying student, I am unwilling to be exposed to content that has not been approved by authorised Zionist personnel. I therefore request that you take immediate action against the lecturer.

Tellingly, many members of faculty ‑ though professionally trained in the critical reading of texts ‑ failed to recognise this one for what it was ‑ a satire (even though, at the foot of the page, for those who might have missed the point, the authors were identified as “Solidarity Against Fascism”).

It turned out that for quite a few Israeli lecturers, this was not a dystopian scenario, but a very plausible reality in which academic freedom had lost its foothold. To a large extent, these anxieties can be attributed to the recent emergence of an ultra-nationalist vigilant student organisation named Im Tirzu (Hebrew for “If you will”, borrowing from the once popular Zionist motto “If you will, it is no dream”, which originally appeared in German – “Wenn ihr wollt, ist es kein Märchen” ‑ in Theodor Herzl’s 1902 novel Altneuland, in reference to his vision of establishing a modern Jewish state in the land of Israel).

Defined on its website as “an extra-parliamentary movement that works to strengthen and advance the values of Zionism in Israel” [http://en.imti.org.il/], Im Tirzu is an alarming new phenomenon on Israeli campuses. I recall witnessing some of its founding moments. During the intensive Israeli aerial bombing of Lebanon in 2006 (the “Second War of Lebanon”), small groups of students spontaneously assembled on campus to wave flags and chant patriotic slogans in support of the offensive. Their unabashed jingoism resurfaced during the unrelenting bombing of Gaza (“Operation Cast Lead”) in 2008 – at a time when the campus in Beer Sheva, where I teach, was practically empty on account of the danger of missile attacks (fortunately no missiles landed on university grounds, though many tons of explosives were shelled on Gaza, mainly harming civilians). Once again in 2010, I witnessed a bullish rally affiliated with Im Tirzu belligerently confronting a demonstration of predominantly Arab students, who protested against the takeover of the Turkish flotilla to Gaza, branding them as traitors and denying their right to freedom of assembly. As is often the case with what may appear to be marginal demonstrations that blatantly express invidious militant rhetoric, few people find cause for concern, preferring to believe that these are harmless instances of extremists venting their frustrations.

Im Tirzu currently operates thirteen branches at universities and colleges throughout Israel. Claiming to be “one of the most important and influential organizations in the Israeli public arena”, it maintains “close ties with various actors in the Israeli political sphere, and its representatives have access to decision-makers and high-ranking government officials in Israel”. In May 2010, they presented to the minister of education a sixty-six-page report purporting to expose “an academic speech gag”, whereby it was claimed that Israeli public universities had become bastions of anti-Zionist defamation. As empirical evidence, the report featured an examination of syllabuses in departments of political science, which identified a bias towards “one-sided political radicalism”. This was supposedly proven by tabulating citations in the reading lists of courses on nationalism, pitting references to the “constructivists” Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm and Elie Kedourie against references to the ethno-symbolist Anthony D Smith and to those who have been described (somewhat problematically) as advocates of “primordialism” ‑ Adrian Hastings, John Armstrong, and Clifford Geertz ‑ in order to argue that the numerical preponderance of the former category demonstrated a deliberate effort to undermine the validity of (Zionist) national claims. By such pseudo-scientific methodology it was claimed that courses at Ben-Gurion University, for example, were grounded in 92 per cent “anti-Zionist and anti-national” research (the average of all Israeli universities was calculated as 79.5 per cent).

In the introduction to his famous study Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (originally delivered as the Wiles lectures at Queen’s University Belfast in 1985), Eric Hobsbawm argued that “no serious historian of nations and nationalism can be a committed political nationalist”. By way of example he added:

To be Irish and proudly attached to Ireland ‑ even to be proudly Catholic-Irish or Ulster Protestant Irish ‑ is not in itself incompatible with the serious study of Irish history. To be a Fenian or an Orangeman, I would judge, is not so compatible, any more than being a Zionist is compatible with writing a genuinely serious history of the Jews; unless the historian leaves his or her convictions behind when entering the library or the study.

It is arguable whether it is possible to attain such academic impartiality. In spite of Julien Benda’s famous denunciation of “the treason of the intellectuals”, who succumbed to the seductions of interwar chauvinism (as enunciated in his 1927 classic La trahison des clercs), his advocacy of the detachment of “the ivory tower” proves to be a very porous concept (which he himself had to reconsider following the Second World War). The seemingly dispassionate attitudes of Hobsbawm and other major researchers of nationalism were clearly influenced by an abhorrence of the excesses and atrocities committed in its name over the twentieth century. None the less, their critical studies are scientifically sound and all scholars in the field, including Anthony D Smith – who is often cited as a critic of a supposed dominant orthodoxy – acknowledge that nationalism as we now know it was constructed in the late modern period. This realisation does not negate the central role of nationalism, in its many forms, in today’s world nor does it prevent anyone from taking pride in national identify. However, rabid right-wing nationalists sentimentally yearn for romantic nationalism as it was taught in the universities of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when “organic intellectuals” (to use Antonio Gramsci’s term) were devoutly engaged in nation-building. And though they frown upon any academic reference to the constructed character of nationalism yet they demand that state-funded universities serve as agents for constructing nationalism.

While the Im Tirzu report may have appeared farcical, even pathetic, in its lack of intellectual rigour, any doubts about the serious intentions of its instigators were soon put to rest when members of Im Tirzu delivered a thirty-day ultimatum to the president of Ben-Gurion University: if the university would not take immediate action to correct the anti-nationalist bias among its faculty in the Department of Politics and Government (presumably by replacing offensive “left-wing lecturers” with more loyal advocates of the state), they would use their contacts to appeal to donors to cut private funding (a threat to which public universities are particularly susceptible in times of budgetary constraints). Though this open assault on academic freedom was widely denounced, interestingly, categorical statements were not issued by senior government officials, leaving suspicions as to what degree a purge of “subversives” from academia might perhaps be privately welcomed by the powers that be. Indeed members of the Knesset [the Israeli parliament], spearheaded by elements in the government, are currently engaged in promoting a series of laws that seek to curtail basic democratic rights in order to inhibit internal criticism of state policies and Im Tirzu is enthusiastically contributing to this effort. This was made evident in a defamatory campaign which they waged against Professor Noemi Hazan – a noted political scientist, human rights activist, former politician and the current president of the New Israel Fund (NIF) – who was maliciously depicted with a horn on her head (an unsubtle world play on the Hebrew word keren, which can mean both “fund” and “horn”). Their allegations that the NIF – an organisation committed to “equality and democracy for all Israelis” [http://www.nif.org] ‑ was funding “anti-Zionist Israeli organisations” were used to support the passing of legislation designed to restrict and tax foreign donations to human rights NGOs (as is the case in Russia, Iran and China).

 

In the following semester, it transpired that Im Tirzu had encouraged its members to covertly record lecturers in class and to note any expression that might be deemed derogatory of the state. To their dismay ‑ as was subsequently revealed in a television report ­ poring over many hours of video and sound recordings did not yield the kind of inflammatory comments in support of terrorism and the destruction of Israel that had been hoped for. However, Im Tirzu’s monitoring of academics went beyond the classroom. Lists were compiled of teachers who had signed petitions critical of state policies and names were singled out for individual censure, sending out an explicit message that dissenting public intellectuals, those who are not subserviently committed to an unreconstructed, fundamentalist, version of Zionist ideology, were undesirable. In an Orwellian world of doublethink, this McCarthyite blacklisting of intellectuals was justified in the name of “academic freedom”. The preface to the Im Tirzu report quoted Alan Dershowitz: “ ... academic freedom does not include only the right to criticise, but also the right to defend the government, to work for the government and the right to be a patriot”. In practice it would seem that they were not advocating a right but a duty to profess zealous patriotism from the lectern, from which derived a necessity to hound critics.

Clearly academic freedom in Israel is under attack. The outcome of the struggle is far from certain and at present the prospects do not appear particularly bright. I should make it clear that the discussion here concerns universities within the State of Israel proper and that the elementary conditions for academic freedom in the Occupied Territories are completely undermined, not least by traffic restrictions imposed by Israeli military road blocks, which prevent staff and students from regularly attending university (needless to say a petition of Israeli academics protesting on this issue was duly noted by Im Tirzu and tagged as yet further proof of disloyalty). Though there is considerable media and internet debate on the struggle for academic freedom in Israel, it is admittedly difficult to be disengaged when addressing such a heated topic and in the absence of historical perspective it may yet be too early to write a proper academic study.

In the version of Ilan Pappé, the true story of the struggle for academic freedom in Israel hinges on one person ‑ himself. Convinced that his “individual story symbolises and represents a larger reality”, Pappé seeks to explain how, from a standard Israeli upbringing, he came to believe that Zionism was “a racist and quite evil philosophy”. This is an autobiographical (almost auto-hagiographical) narrative of a Pauline conversion, which germinated in his postgraduate studies at Oxford at the time of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and brought upon him many tribulations as a senior lecturer in history at Haifa University, ultimately compelling him to relocate to the University of Exeter. Academic freedom is of concern insofar as it serves his greater mission to “deconstruct the story of modern Palestine”.

Pappé longingly describes a brief period of relative tolerance in the 1990s, during the administration of Yitzhak Rabin, when on the background of the Oslo Peace Accords opportunities emerged for open dialogue on the rewriting of history. This was then supplanted, he asserts, by “[T]he closing of the Israeli mind and militarisation of its public space during the second Intifada”, a process that “reached an unprecedented level of moral corruption in 2006 during Israel’s attack on Lebanon – the Second Lebanon War – and even more so when Gaza was attacked in 2009”. At times Pappé’s account of persecution seems to border on haute fantaisie. Considerable credulity is required to accept that a public TV channel actually conspired to push him of a rooftop during a Katyusha rocket attack, as hinted in his description of a “televised court martial” filmed in a building near Haifa, in which he “was seated at the very edge of the roof – which had no railings of fences to safeguard me – on purpose”. However, he clearly suffered very tangible harassment (including anonymous death threats), and there is good reason to believe that the University of Haifa’s decision to instigate against him administrative procedures, which were called off only in the face of international outcry, was politically motivated. As the most outspoken of the Israeli “new historians”, Pappé is an important, even indispensable, voice in debates on historiography and Israel is left all the poorer for his absence.

The ultimate test for academic freedom in Pappé’s experience was the so-called Teddy Katz affair, to which a large portion of his book is devoted. In 2000, Theodore (Teddy) Katz – a mature postgraduate student who had just completed an MA programme in Pappé’s department – was sued for libel following the publication of a newspaper article based on his thesis, which argued that the occupation by Jewish troops of the Arab coastal village of Tantura at the foothills of the Carmel Mountains in 1948 was followed by the massacre of prisoners. Unlike other instances of proven atrocities in this war, which were confirmed by archival documents, in this case the evidence predominantly relied on oral testimonies. The trial, conducted in a tensely politicised climate, ended in an apology issued by the student (which he subsequently retracted). Succumbing to external pressures, the university initiated irregular academic procedures to re-examine the thesis (which had originally been awarded a distinction), resulting in its disqualification; a substantially revised resubmission was judged by a specially appointed external committee and rejected, effectively putting an end to Katz’s plans to pursue further postgraduate studies. The University of Haifa’s patent failure to offer support to a student exposed to public haranguing on account of academic research conducted under its tutelage was shameful to say the least, and is a worrying infringement of the academic freedom of students. Pappé was not, as has been commonly assumed (for example in Raymond Deane’s review of his autobiography for the Electronic Intifada web journal), the supervisor of the student in question, nor was he the only Israeli academic to come forth and protest. Though he courageously stood by Katz during his ordeal, at the expense of antagonising intimidated colleagues, it is regretful that he did not exercise his academic freedom to offer the mentorship which would have provided methodological tools in oral history that might have allowed the research to stand the severely pedantic examination to which it was subjected. It would seem that Pappé was more interested in the political than the academic implications of this affair.

It is important for Pappé that political debate focus on a reassessment of the historical ramifications of the foundation of Israel in 1948 rather than on Israel’s expansion into the Occupied Territories in 1967. His writings on the Palestinian experiences of the Nakba [Catastophe] as ethnic cleansing infuriate ultra-nationalists. Always with their finger on the populist pulse, Im Tirzu ran a campaign in May 2011 titled “Nakba Bullshit” [Nakba Harta], circulating a booklet which bears striking similarities to the literature of Holocaust denial, mirroring the rhetoric of this odious genre and displaying posters with an unashamedly racist caricature of a Palestinian that recycled familiar anti-Semitic depictions. This too was tied in with right-wing legislation, as over the course of the year the Knesset passed a law which empowers the finance minister to penalise state-funded bodies that commemorate the Nakba (or in doublethink: “mark Independence Day or the foundation day of the state as a day of mourning”); the original proposal was to criminalise such disloyalty and punish it with imprisonment. The political implications of Pappé’s historical agenda are a rejection of a two-state solution in favour of the dismantling of the Jewish state. A major problem with the proposal for a binational state, attractive as it may seem, is that at present it is totally unacceptable to the vast majority of the citizens of Israel and would therefore have to be undemocratically imposed from outside. To achieve this aim, Pappé favours the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign. Such non-violent tactics are gathering increasing support, given the recalcitrant intransigence of the current Israeli government. In response, further anti-democratic legislation has been passed. As of July 2011, it is now illegal for an Israeli citizen or organisation to advocate a boycott.

In Pappé’s view, practically all Israeli academics are collaborators of an oppressive regime and as such deserve to be boycotted. His exile has relieved him of the paradox of calling for a boycott of Israeli universities from within an Israeli university and has spared him from legal recrimination (the original version of the “boycott law” proposal authorised the government to deny for a decade entry into Israel to any foreign citizen who called for a boycott, but this clause was later omitted). It remains an open question whether a boycott of Israeli academia can do any good for the cause of peace and reconciliation to which he is committed. In all likelihood it will weaken even further those who have remained to continue the struggle for academic freedom. “In societies torn by internal and external rifts and conflicts,” he writes, “a pretence of objectivity and impartiality is particularly misplaced, if not totally unfounded.” Indeed, it is practically impossible to distinguish between Pappé’s academic discourse and his political polemics.

In Save the World on Your Own Time (2008), Stanley Fish provocatively argued against the invocation of academic freedom to justify the use of classroom podiums for expressing political opinions (even in the name of praiseworthy causes). Academic freedom is often conflated with freedom of expression, though the two are not synonymous ‑ the one an essential principle within the academy, the other a basic democratic right. Yet, the more one delves into the issue the more it becomes apparent that clear lines cannot be drawn between the manifestations of these two interdependent liberties within the halls of the academy.

Many self-proclaimed radicals choose to exercise their freedom in order to tell students what to think, rather than take the slower, truly academic (and ultimately more subversive) path of teaching them how to think. As such they bear an uncanny resemblance to their sworn opponents, the likes of Im Tirzu, the difference being in their preference of ideological content and not on the grounds of an ethical principle. A juxtaposition of the extreme right and the radical left creates a hall of mirrors in which the thought-policing of organisations like Israeli Academia Monitor, which obsessively follows the “anti-Israel activities of Israeli academics” while professing a commitment to a “universal tradition of academic freedom”, is mimicked by Palestinian solidarity activists, who keep tabs on academics they deem to be pro-Israel or Zionist. Pappé’s book is similarly freighted with bitter settling of personal scores. Just as he was nastily labelled by one of his opponents “Lord Haw-Haw”, so he himself has gone on record comparing Israeli lecturers to German academics who collaborated with the Nazi regime. Such inflammatory rhetoric is unhelpful to the cause of academic freedom.

A more interesting comparison would be to consider the positing of Pappé as a soi-disant “new historian” with comparable debates in Irish historiography, as such analogies tend to encourage a rethinking of worn-out categories. On the one hand, his commitment to debunking national myths places him squarely within the revisionist, post-nationalist camp. Yet his rejection of empirical fastidiousness (which has brought much delight to his critics, who find pleasure in detecting factual errors in his works) in favour of methodological promiscuity brings him closer to the so-called neo-traditionalists and post-revisionists, some of whom share his postcolonial stance. Pappé takes offence at colleagues who he believes totally misunderstood him by branding him a postmodernist, when in his view he is a relativist. This self-perception deserves critical interrogation. There is a distinct postmodern quality to this book, in which he retells the story of the Teddy Katz Affair and Tantura three times, on each occasion using a different approach, once as a personal narrative, the second time in a fictionalised literary version and then as a historian re-examining the evidence (the appendix).

Postmodernism is particularly evident in the imaginative reworking of the episode into a short story – “the Best Runner in the Class” ‑ which allows him to take poetic liberties with the facts of the case. Though as an iconoclast historian Pappé championed the exploding of Zionist myths, this story seems to be more mythical than historical, in the classic Greek sense whereby the contingency of history and its ever changing nature makes it unreliable, as opposed to mythos, which expresses eternal and universal truths. By weaving into the story evocative elements of Palestinian collective memory, Pappé demonstrates the subjective significance of the Tantura episode (an interpretative layer of meaning which was entirely missing from the Katz thesis), as opposed to debating what actually happened. On the other hand, the extent of Pappé’s adherence to relativism, an approach which maintains that historical events can only be described through alternative narratives (which ideally should be put in dialogue with each other), is questionable. He invalidates the traditional Zionist narrative of 1948 in implicitly positivist terms and accepts in its place a Palestinian narrative. Whereas he vigorously deconstructs the former, he handles the latter with kid gloves. This is common practice in many postcolonial studies, which characteristically display sophistication in criticising the hegemony of empire but disappointingly tend to essentialise the category of “indigenous”. The result is that myths are simply changed about. Once again we find ourselves in a hall of mirrors in which–in the name of academic freedom–one nationalist dogma replaces another.

The most disappointing aspect of Pappé’s autobiography is that, beyond all the self-aggrandisement, there is precious little introspection. One might have expected that writing the book from remote England would have allowed for a measure of detachment and produced more critical self-reflection and nuance. If Edward Said’s superb memoir Out of Place (1999) challenged readers to rethink their position, both in the ways they located Said and in where they placed themselves, Pappé’s Out of the Frame reaffirms pre-existing stances and allows readers to stay within the comfort of their own frame. One can reasonably speculate that readers’ responses to this book will be all too predictable. In all likelihood it will be lauded by critics of Israel, who will find in it – in the words of Ronit Lentin of Trinity College Dublin (as they appear on the book’s cover) – “the real road map to Israel’s ideological dismantling”, and that it will be lambasted by Pappé’s opponents. More might have been expected from an intellectual exposition of the struggle for academic freedom.

Though the situation in Israel is extreme, the crisis of academic freedom today is pervasive and, since its marks can also be found in other democracies facing a right-wing resurgence, it merits broader consideration. The European Union also has its flashpoints. In January 2011, the Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller accused the Hungarian government of clamping down on a group of liberal-minded philosophers known for their criticism of the conservative prime minister Viktor Orbán. Even “the land of the free” is not immune to such witch-hunting. In March 2011, the blog “Scholar as Citizen” [http://scholarcitizen.williamcronon.net] authored by Professor William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin-Madison – a renowned environmental historian and the incumbent president of the American Historical Association – made headlines for questioning the policies of a conservative organisation. In response, representatives of the local Republican Party filed a Freedom of Information request to inspect his university email correspondence, harnessing the Open Records Law to intimidate criticism. Though the university was forced to disclose some of the records, the chancellor issued a statement in which she urged faculty to “[C]ontinue to ask difficult questions, explore unpopular lines of thought and exercise your academic freedom, regardless of your point of view”. This affair, which exposed the susceptibility of new media to attacks on academic freedom, incidentally called attention to a previous history of struggles in Wisconsin at the fin de siècle. In 1915, a plaque was erected in the university’s main administration building to commemorate triumphs in 1894 and 1910 over conservative lobbying for the dismissal of professors known for their critical views. It proudly declares that, “[W]hatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere,” the university “should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found”. This stylistic wording, engraved in bronze and transcending in its universal message the passing nature of present political concerns, is one of the finest formulas for the raison d’être of academic freedom and of the need to continue to struggle in its name.

 

A provisional epilogue

Since this article was written, further developments have occurred.

On December 7th, 2011, the Knesset’s Education Committee held a special session to consider an external report evaluating the political science departments in Israeli universities. This was most unusual. Such reports are regularly commissioned by the Council for Higher Education but have never previously been discussed in parliament. Before the report was available for perusal, rumours were maliciously leaked to the press, misleadingly suggesting that the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University (BGU) was faulted for political bias in its teaching. On the basis of this hearsay, Im Tirzu immediately published an open letter to the BGU president, claiming that their earlier allegations were now vindicated and demanding “completely revamping the structure of the Department of Politics and Government, including lecturers, courses and syllabi”.

The members of the parliamentary committee had a heated “exchange of strong words”, as acknowledged in a Knesset press release, though it is doubtful whether they had actually read the report. Had they bothered to do so, they should have noticed that it includes congratulatory remarks which acknowledge the department’s “solid commitment to good citizenship and community activism” and affirm “that engagement in politics and society is a normal and appropriate activity for those who teach and do research in politics and government, as long as this does not overshadow academic work”.

At the parliamentary debate, the representatives of the university were obliged to defend their academic integrity on a politicised stage. A spokesperson for Im Tirzu was present to point out that lecturers in the department had signed petitions critical of government policies and in response the head of the extreme right-wing National Union party, who is at the forefront of legislation initiatives to curtail fundamental civil rights, remarked: “They are anti-Zionist, they disregard the State, in what place would this be allowed? This is a shame and disgrace.”

Earlier in the week, a Knesset member from the ruling Likud party, who had initiated the bill to limit foreign funding to human rights groups, declared on television that Senator Joseph McCarthy “was right in every word”. His apparent ignorance of the many innocent lives damaged by McCarthyism (including a high proportion of Jews) is reflective of a wider public ignorance of the lessons of modern history, not least of the rise of fascism. If the opponents of academic freedom have their way, such topics may be expurgated from curricula, alongside any expression of critical thought.

Guy Beiner is a senior lecturer of modern history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel. He is the author of Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History and Social Memory (University of Wisconsin Press, 2007, paperback ed. 2009) and is currently writing a book on social forgetting in Ulster.

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