THE BLOG
07/22/2014 03:34 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2014

International Scholars Lend Support to Dissident Scholars in Israel

One of the ways of silencing dissent is through the demand for loyalty, so that a slogan you hear a lot now is "no citizenship without loyalty". This reflects the inversion of the republican idea that the state should be loyal to the citizen and is accountable for inequities and injustices. The reversal of this relationship between state and loyalty ... is alarming. One of the expressions of these symptoms is the increasingly violent attitude to any dissent within Israel.

So wrote Israeli academic Neve Gordon in 2010, remarking on the stifling of dissent he was witnessing then in Israel.

A year before, Gordon had caused a huge controversy by publishing an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times entitled, "Boycott Israel," in which he described Israel as "an apartheid state" and urged "massive international pressure" against its discriminatory practices.

Immediately after, Gordon faced heated criticism from the Israeli state, and from his own university. As Haaretz reported, "Israel's Consul-General in Los Angeles, Yaakov Dayan sent a letter of response to the president of Ben-Gurion University, Prof. Rivka Carmi, in which he said the statements made by Gordon could be potentially damaging to the university. 'Since the article was published, I've been contacted by people who care for Israel; some of them are benefactors of Ben-Gurion University,' Dayan wrote. 'They were unanimous in threatening to withhold their donations to your institution. My attempt to explain that one bad apple would affect hundreds of researchers turned out to be futile.'"

Usually one would expect the leader of any university to defend their faculty member's right to academic freedom. In this case this was emphatically not the case. Again, Haaretz:

The Ben-Gurion University management in turn denounced Gordon's views.
"We are appalled by Dr. Neve Gordon's irresponsible remarks, that morally deserve to be completely and utterly condemned," Prof. Carmi said. "We disapprove of Gordon's disastrous views and reject his cynical exploitation of the freedom of speech in Israel and the university."

"This vile and audacious criticism of the state of Israel damages the excellent academic work being done in Israel and its universities," she also said. "Academics with such feelings about their country are welcome to look for another home, whether personal or professional."


It is crucial to note that the sole reason Carmi believes Gordon "cynically exploited" freedom of speech is that he used his academic freedom to criticize the state of Israel beyond whatever unspoken bounds might exist.

Shortly after, things intensified, as the state became involved in the fate of the Political Science department there, home to Professor Gordon. As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2012:

A simmering debate over the fate of the department of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has roiled Israeli academe and prompted cries by scholars both here and in the United States that academic freedom is under assault by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The long-running dispute over the department may come to a head soon when a resolution to close it will be discussed by Israel's Council for Higher Education, a government body that accredits and oversees colleges in Israel. On October 23, the council will consider a controversial recommendation from its Subcommittee for Quality Assurance to halt student registration at the department, effectively shutting it down, unless it undertakes more changes. The proposal has ignited accusations that the move is motivated more by politics than pedagogy.

The CHE noted that "department faculty members have been criticized for their left-wing views. In 2009, right-wing groups called for the dismissal of Neve Gordon, a professor of political science at Ben-Gurion, when he announced his support for a boycott of Israeli institutions over Israel's policy toward Palestinians. An international review committee had expressed some concern 'that the study of politics as a scientific discipline may be impeded by such strong emphasis on political activism.'"

The committee made several suggestions for reforming the department, and as the university began to implement the changes things seemed to be on the mend. Upon review "the council's subcommittee welcomed the changes at Ben-Gurion." However, some members "noted that none of the new faculty endorsed a 'positivist approach' and determined that the department teaching was still dominated by too much critical theory. It recommended appointing a monitoring committee that would report back by December. Meanwhile, the subcommittee said, registration for the 2013-14 academic year should be suspended."

At this point, we find President Carmi taking a different position, as Israeli committee members seemed to have taken over the process. She described this recommendation as "totally at odds with the evaluation written by the two international members who had been appointed 'to oversee the process.'" Indeed, in a letter to the heads of Israeli universities Carmi wrote, "This struggle is not only about Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, but rather it is a struggle of the entire Israeli academic community ... The approval of this decision by the Council for Higher Education will constitute a devastating blow to academic independence in Israel." In February the decision was finally turned back.

I mention this earlier event not only to show how one accommodation to state censorship can open on to an onslaught of much more, but also to set the tone for today. We must recall that 2009 also saw a massive bombardment of Gaza -- Neve Gordon's call for a boycott should be placed in that context as well.

Today, as we watch the number of Palestinians who have been killed rise well above 500, noting that these largely civilian deaths are of a far greater proportion to the dozen or so Israeli soldiers who have died, we find worldwide demonstrations against the Israeli attacks. And academics in the United States and Europe have been speaking out on the killings, writing opinion pieces and blogs, signing any number of petitions. But in Israel dissent is clearly much more difficult, and dangerous, to express. There are widespread reports of attacks on protest demonstrations, with the police standing by or even taking part in the attacks, as in this news article entitled, "The Night It Became Dangerous to Demonstrate in Tel Aviv," and others.

It is within this context -- with the state, the security forces, and conservative elements in academic institutions either directly or indirectly repressing protest -- that a call went out to garner international support for dissident Israeli academics.

A few weeks ago, Professor Haim Bresheeth, an eminent filmmaker, photographer and a film studies scholar teaching at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, conceived of and issued "An Open Letter to Israeli Academics."

Bresheeth describes himself thus: "I am the son of two Auschwitz survivors, born in a refugee camp in Italy in 1946. My parents immigrated to Israel in 1948, and my father was one of the first conscientious objectors in 1948, for which he sat in prison. I grew up in Israel, served in the army 1964-1967 as a Lieutenant, fought in the Golan Heights, and again in 1973, when I was already doing my MA in London. After that war, I have become a peace activist and an anti-Zionist, which I have been ever since."

In an interview, I asked Bresheeth why he felt the need to issue this call for solidarity amongst international academics. Here is his reply:

Academics and intellectuals have, I think, a moral and socio-political duty to speak up against oppression and injustice. They enjoy heightened status and many social benefits, and must 'speak truth to power'. If they do not, then a social collapse of the kind that happened in Germany in the 1930s or in the USA during McCarthyism, brings about a destructive social process. This has now happened in Israel, where fascist and racist tendencies have taken over the public sphere. We have called on our colleagues in Israel to play an active role in stopping the immoral, illegal war on Gaza, and assisting towards bringing about a political solution, leading to a just peace and the end of the occupation. So far, they have not risen to this challenge, unfortunately.

As the son of Holocaust survivors, who was born in a DP camp in Italy, and grew up in Jaffa in the evacuated home of Palestinians who were made refugees by Israel's army and never allowed to return, I am acutely sensitized to the meaning of refugee life and its injustices. Even disregarding the daily atrocities committed by the Israeli army, one needs to think like an academic about Gaza: Young people in Gaza are unable to take up university places offered them abroad, no lecturers from overseas are allowed into Gaza, not even returning Palestinians, and no academics are allowed out. Gaza is a large prison, or even a concentration camp, into which Israel ventures at will, to kill, destroy and frighten. The academic freedom enjoyed by Israelis has no parallel in Palestine, where universities are destroyed, students and lecturers arrested and killed, and no rights of any kind enjoyed by anyone, Is this a situation which any academic can, or should condone?

The issuing of the Open Letter answers a call from Palestinian scholars to their Israeli counterparts, asking for them to speak out. In turn, international scholars signing the Open Letter lend these dissenters their support. The Open Letter reads in part:

We have been asked by our academic colleagues in Gaza -- whose universities have been destroyed a number of times in the last six years, who are unable to teach or study, and who are also in growing need of food and medicines, like the rest of the almost two million Palestinians living in Gaza -- to urge you to act urgently, to make your voice heard in Israel and abroad against what the Israeli government is inflicting on the Gaza population.

Knowing full well the difficulties of openly criticizing Israel in the current situation, the letter is signed by over one thousand (and counting) academics from the United States and Europe, including such prominent scholars as John Berger, Etienne Balibar, Richard Falk, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Laura Mulvey, Laleh Khalili, Daniel Boyarin, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Angela Davis, to name just a few.

The response from Israeli academics has started to come in, even at the costs they know they must bear.

In the academy we often wonder what we can do. Here is a call that not only raises our voices, but helps those less free to speak to do the same. If academic freedom is to mean anything, it must be enjoyed and put to use universally. Ideas need to flow freely, especially in times of crisis. It is ironic, then, that those supposedly endowed with academic freedom in Israel often face an extra layer of surveillance and control since they are situated within universities, which are largely state institutions.

Besides the signatures of these Israeli academics, we find signs of other modes of resistance and protest outside the academy. For example, on Sunday July 20, a group of more than 200 Israeli citizens sent a letter to the European Council, Commission and the European Parliament calling on the EU to pressure Israel to accept Hamas' terms of truce. And as of that date, 725 Israeli citizens signed a Hebrew/Arabic language online petition supporting Hamas' conditions as a basis for immediate and direct negotiations. Hopefully the mass demonstrations worldwide will help more dissenters to step forward as these individuals have.