• August 30, 2015

An Assault on Israeli Academic Freedom—and Liberal Values

On May 31, I joined some 50 students and faculty members who gathered outside Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to demonstrate against the Israeli military assault on the flotilla carrying humanitarian aid toward Gaza. In response, the next day a few hundred students marched toward the social-sciences building, Israeli flags in hand. Amid the nationalist songs and pro-government chants, there were also shouts demanding my resignation from the university faculty.

One student even proceeded to create a Facebook group whose sole goal is to have me sacked. So far over 2,100 people (many of them nonstudents) have joined. In addition to death wishes and declarations that I should be exiled, the site includes a call on students to spy on me during class. "We believe," ends a message written to the group, "that if we conduct serious and profound work, we can, with the help of each and every one of you, gather enough material to influence ... Neve Gordon's status at the university, and maybe even bring about his dismissal."

Such personal attacks are part of a much broader assault on Israeli higher education and its professors. Two recent incidents exemplify the protofascist logic that is being deployed to undermine the pillars of academic freedom in Israel, while also revealing that the assault on Israeli academe is being backed by neoconservative forces in the United States.

The first incident involves a report published by the Institute for Zionist Strategies, in Israel, which analyzed course syllabi in Israeli sociology departments and accused professors of a "post-Zionist" bias. The institute defines post-Zionism as "the pretense to undermine the foundations of the Zionist ethos and an affinity with the radical leftist stream." In addition to the usual Israeli leftist suspects, intellectuals like Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm also figure in as post-Zionists in the report.

The institute sent the report to the Israel Council for Higher Education, which is the statutory body responsible for Israeli universities, and the council, in turn, sent it to all of the university presidents. Joseph Klafter, president of Tel-Aviv University, actually asked several professors to hand over their syllabi for his perusal, though he later asserted that he had no intention of policing faculty members and was appalled by the report.

A few days later, the top headline of the Israeli daily Haaretz revealed that another right-wing organization, Im Tirtzu (If You Will It), had threatened Ben-Gurion University, where I am a professor and a former chair of the government and politics department. Im Tirtzu told the university's president, Rivka Carmi, that it would persuade donors to place funds in escrow unless the university took steps "to put an end to the anti-Zionist tilt" in its politics and government department. The organization demanded a change "in the makeup of the department's faculty and the content of its syllabi," giving the president a month to meet its ultimatum. This time my head was not the only one it wanted.

President Carmi immediately asserted that Im Tirtzu's demands were a serious threat to academic freedom. However, Minister of Education Gideon Sa'ar, who is also chairman of the Council for Higher Education, restricted his response to a cursory statement that any move aimed at harming donations to universities must be stopped. Mr. Sa'ar's response was disturbingly predictable. Only a few months earlier, he had spoken at an Im Tirtzu gathering, following its publication of a report about the so-called leftist slant of syllabi in Israeli political-science departments. At the gathering, he asserted that even though he had not read the report, its conclusions would be taken very seriously.

Although the recent scuffle seems to be about academic freedom, the assault on the Israeli academe is actually part of a much wider offensive against liberal values. Numerous forces in Israel are mobilizing in order to press forward an extreme-right political agenda.

They have chosen the universities as their prime target for two main reasons. First, even though Israeli universities as institutions have never condemned any government policy—not least the restrictions on Palestinian universities' academic freedom—they are home to many vocal critics of Israel's rights-abusive policies. Those voices are considered traitorous and consequently in need of being stifled. Joining such attacks are Americans like Alan M. Dershowitz, who in a recent visit to Tel-Aviv University called for the resignations of professors who supported the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli goods and divestment from Israeli companies until the country abides by international human-rights law. He named Rachel Giora and Anat Matar, both tenured professors at Tel Aviv University, as part of that group.

Second, all Israeli universities depend on public funds for about 90 percent of their budget. This has been identified as an Achilles heel. The idea is to exploit the firm alliance those right-wing organizations have with government members and provide the ammunition necessary to make financial support for universities conditional on the dissemination of nationalist thought and the suppression of "subversive ideas." Thus, in the eyes of those right-wing Israeli organizations, the universities are merely arms of the government.

And, yet, Im Tirtzu and other such organizations would not have been effective on their own; they depend on financial support from backers in the United States. As it turns out, some of their ideological allies are willing to dig deep into their pockets to support the cause.

The Rev. John C. Hagee, the leader of Christians United for Israel, has been Im Tirtzu's sugar daddy, and his ministries have provided the organization with at least $100,000. After Im Tirtzu's most recent attack, however, even Mr. Hagee concluded that it had gone overboard and decided to stop giving funds. The Hudson Institute, a neoconservative think tank that helped shape the Bush administration's Middle East policies, has funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Institute for Zionist Strategies over the past few years, and was practically its only donor. For Christians United and the Hudson Institute, the attack on academic freedom is clearly also a way of advancing much broader objectives.

The Hudson Institute, for example, has neo-imperialist objectives in the Middle East, and a member of its Board of Trustees is in favor of attacking Iran. Christian United's eschatological position (whereby the Second Coming is dependent on the gathering of all Jews in Israel), includes support for such an attack. The scary partnership between such Israeli and American organizations helps reveal the true aims of this current assault on academic freedom: to influence Israeli policy and eliminate the few liberal forces that are still active in the country. The atmosphere within Israel is conducive to such intervention.

Nonetheless, Im Tirtzu's latest threat backfired, as did that of the Institute for Zionist Strategies' report; the assaults have been foiled for now. The presidents of all the universities in Israel condemned the reports and promised never to bow down to this version of McCarthyism.

Despite those declarations, the rightist organizations have actually made considerable headway. Judging from comments on numerous online news sites, the populist claim that the public's tax money is being used to criticize Israel has convinced many readers that the universities should be more closely monitored by the government and that "dissident" professors must be fired. Moreover, the fact that the structure of Israeli universities has changed significantly over the past five years, and that now most of the power lies in the hands of presidents rather than the faculty, will no doubt be exploited to continue the assault on academic freedom. Top university administrators are already stating that if the Israeli Knesset approves a law against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement for Palestine, the law will be used to fire faculty members who support the movement.

More importantly, there is now the sense among many faculty members that a thought police has been formed—and that many of its officers are actually members of the academic community. The fact that students are turning themselves into spies and that syllabi are being collected sends a chilling message to faculty members across the country. I, for one, have decided to include in my syllabi a notice restricting the use of recording devices during class without my prior consent. And many of my friends are now using Gmail instead of the university e-mail accounts for fear that their correspondence will in some way upset administrators.

Israeli academe, which was once considered a bastion of free speech, has become the testing ground for the success of the assault on liberal values. And although it is still extremely difficult to hurt those who have managed to enter the academic gates, those who have not yet passed the threshold are clearly being monitored.

I know of one case in which a young academic was not hired due to his membership in Courage to Refuse, an organization of reserve soldiers who refuse to do military duty in the West Bank. In a Google and Facebook age, the thought police can easily disqualify a candidate based on petitions signed and even online "friends" one has. Israeli graduate students are following such developments, and for them the message is clear.

While in politics nothing is predetermined, Israel is heading down a slippery slope. Israeli academe is now an arena where some of the most fundamental struggles of a society are being played out. The problem is that instead of struggling over basic human rights, we are now struggling over the right to struggle.

Neve Gordon is a professor of politics and the author of Israel's Occupation (University of California Press, 2008).


1. osholes - August 27, 2010 at 06:26 am

No Air Jordans from me, unlike the first posting, just an acknowledgement of the air headed wackos who demand adherence to their view of the world. Apparently, such folks are the byproducts of pretty much any religious tradition, especially when those religions merge with politics and the running of governments. Thus we get the 10 commandments in our courthouses, declarations that the USA is a Christian nation, and elected officials condemning a Muslim center on private land in New York City. Those who are religiously "pure" view those of us who are not as the enemy. So much for rational discourse.

2. interested_reader3 - August 27, 2010 at 08:25 am

While acknowledging the serious threats to academic freedom delineated by Prof. Gordon, his article lacks info on the 'why' --which forces in society are present to support this type of behavior, and why now? -- and doesn't address what he and others are planning to do about it. Consequently, the article comes across a bit ... whiny. (Hey, I could whine about the Conservative forces in the U.S. a whole lot, too.) A more interesting and useful article would be about what the Mr. Gordon and others plan to do to retaliate against or protect society and themselves against those who oppose them.

3. sararobbins - August 27, 2010 at 10:24 am

It would seem to me that Prof Gordon is the eptimome of Chutzpah
(unmitigated gall).
On the one hand, he calls for an international boycott against the very state which pays his salary, protects his life and liberties, and that of his family and friends. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/aug/21/israel-international-boycott). But then, he complains when others counterprotest against his over-the-top antics.

If Gordon is entitled to his opinions (and it is questionable whether or not a professor can espouse such in class), why are not the students own opinions similarly protected?
And if he can offer those opinions in foreign (that is non-Isreai) journals and other forums, why then cannot non-students also protest?

Gordon's call for a boycott--intellectual and financial--until Israel 'comes to its senses' is no different than the call to his university's donors to set aside their donations "for now"--until the offending institution comes to its senses.

Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander Prof Gordon.

4. mmeisens - August 27, 2010 at 11:11 am

Neve Gordon's position has nothing to do with academic freedom and everything to do with being a traitor. At some point, all societies need to make that distinction and they do. They even make it in the area of freedom of speach and assembly. There is no doubt as to the treasonous nature of Gordon's blief and actions. He studied under a well known German Nazi professor at Norte Dame who I had the displeasure of knowing for a number of years. Their central goal is to finish a seventy year old project of the Mufti of Jerusalem (to make things short). Why the Chronicle would give voice to such a subversive charachter is beyond me.

5. 12025109 - August 27, 2010 at 11:16 am

One does not have to live in Israel to experience the effects of wealthy, right-wing, pro-Zionist donors, who use their money as a weapon against free speech and academic freedom. This happens even in a country whose forefathers fought to escape the shackles of church-state feudalism and oppression. Palestinian refugees hide their identity and keep silent. Sympathizers also dare not say anything. Soon anyone expressing a view counter to the Zionist discourse that dominates American culture will be forced to wear symbols of their belief as brands on the forehead--a "D" for dissident-- and will be rounded up and forced to march to concentration camps. In such places, all countervailing opinions will be purged from the population. Our spineless leaders will stand back and watch lest they too become suspect. Back to 1940 we go, never having learned any lessons from history.

6. _perplexed_ - August 27, 2010 at 12:38 pm

What planet is #5 on?

7. tvusrfch - August 27, 2010 at 01:17 pm

How would an American university react to a faculty member who calls for the boycott of his university or of fellow faculty members?
A "mirror" incident: some "left" faculty members sought to prevent an appointment of a retired army officer, due to war crimes that they accused her of. Speaking of "those who have not yet passed the threshold are clearly being monitored"...
"Israeli universities as institutions have never condemned any government policy"? Have American universities, as institutions? Have not Israeli universities, as institutions, condemned policies regarding education (to be precise: lack of education) (sorry for the nitpicking).
Gordon does not mention the sources of funding of "left" organizations.
"Israeli academe...was once considered a bastion of free speech": it apparently still is if Gordon and others with similar views can express themselves in and out of campus. Perhaps Gordon got mixed up with the refusal by a few Western journals to publish articles written by Israeli researchers.
My personal view: every Israeli has the right to express his views, but a faculty member cannot slew his courses to indoctrinate his personal view, nor can any employee call for the boycott of his workplace and of fellow workers.
The interested reader might want to read this article by an Israeli journalist:

8. crunchycon - August 27, 2010 at 02:39 pm

perplexed, I'm with you. Contrarily to 12025109's assertions, it is Christians who are ostracized, gagged, and kept out of higher education, except at Christian universities -- and libs have even sued to get hired at them, saying that if they accept federal funding (financial aid), then they can't require employees to adhere to a religious code. Try being an openly Christian person and attempt to be hired at a public university or even a private university -- even a private "religiously founded" university like Georgetown.

9. crunchycon - August 27, 2010 at 02:43 pm

As for the article, itself -- why is it that anything but "liberal" to liberals is "extreme-right"? and why are conservative funders "sugar daddies" but liberal funders, such as George Soros, are "donors" or, more often, "anonymous donors"? And, "restricting the use of recording devices during class without my prior consent"?? How is he going to know? If he catches someone surrepticiously recording what is going to do? Flunk the student? Would the university back him up on that?

10. tvusrfch - August 27, 2010 at 04:44 pm

Gordon's next step will be to prohibit taking notes in his class...

11. bluestocking2 - August 28, 2010 at 01:17 am

Prof. Gordon is a brave man to insist that Israel be a democracy for all its people and that it abide by international law.

The sheer paranoia and anger reflected in many of these comments are similar to those of racist whites in the South before the Civil Rights Movement. It is understandable, for the unstated question is: what if "they" (blacks or Palestinians) treat us the way we have treated them? They shudder at the thought; hence the entrenchment, the denial, the refusal to see other people as human beings with inalienable rights.

12. fruupp - August 28, 2010 at 01:57 am

Why am I NOT surprised that the reptilian interloper Alan Dershowitz has intruded into this matter? His lunatic rantings--cribbed, no doubt, from the thoroughly discredited writings of the equally delusional Joan Peters--were instrumental in intimidating the craven and cowardly admini-clowns at DePaul University into denying tenure to Norman Finkelstein, whose truth-telling regarding Israel/Zionism the paranoid Dershowitz seeks to suppress.

On with the boycott!!

13. zunes - August 28, 2010 at 02:31 am

The frightening shift to the right in Israel is taking place in large part because of the support they get in Washington. Barbara Boxer, Jon Kyl, Russ Feingold, Johnny Isaakson, Ron Wyden, and Joe Lieberman, and are just some of the U.S. senators who continue to defend the right-wing Israeli government in their suppression of academic freedom. If they can get away with defending such policies in Israel, don't think for a moment they won't defend similar suppression against dissident voices here in the United States. If you care about Israel and you care about the USA, let's work to defend academic freedom and defeat the politicians in both countries who would take it away from us.

14. tvusrfch - August 28, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Bluestockings2: Israelis do shudder at that thought; they see how Palestinians have treated Israelis, Palestinian Christians, and Palestinian Muslims. No parallel to racist whites in the South. Nevertheless, Israelis (and yes, there are exceptions to the rule) do "see other people as human beings with inalienable rights".
Zunes: let's defend academic freedom from those within the academe who call for boycotting academic institutions and faculty members

15. fruupp - August 29, 2010 at 02:01 am

#13 wrote: "....the support they get in Washington. Barbara Boxer, Jon Kyl, Russ Feingold, Johnny Isaakson, Ron Wyden, and Joe Lieberman, and are just some of the U.S. senators who continue to defend the right-wing Israeli government."

No surprise here. While he's wrong about almost everything, right-wing paranoid Pat Buchanan was stating the obvious when he characterized Congress as "Israeli-occupied territory."

Want a career in national politics? You'd better tow the line on Israel or you're screwed.

16. tvusrfch - August 29, 2010 at 08:44 am

13, 16: I wonder, would US policy in the ME and beyond be the same if Saudi Arabia, etc. had no oil? Would the US have not bombed Wahabi hotbeds and Al-Qaeda supporters there? Would it have saved Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion? Would it have supported oil-rich regimes with billions of dollars worth of weapons if they were not oil-rich? Israel has supporters, other countries have supporters. The State Dept. is considered historically more supportive of Arab countries than Israel.

17. dank48 - August 30, 2010 at 09:37 am

Fruupp #15: It's "toe the line," for God's sake. What the hell would "tow the line" mean?

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.