One on One: A higher degree of disloyalty?

Dana Barnett's Israel Academia Monitor follows anti-Israel professors.

April 6, 2009 20:48
One on One: A higher degree of disloyalty?

dana barnett. (photo credit: Maya Spitzer)

When Dana Barnett decided to "pick up the ball and run with it" four years ago, by establishing Israel Academia Monitor, she "hadn't grasped fully just how crucial an endeavor it was." Indeed, says Barnett - who modeled IAM after Campus Watch, a US-based organization that monitors Middle East studies departments at American universities - "As soon as I started devoting myself to it full-time, I discovered that the situation here was even worse than I had originally thought." The "situation" she is referring to is that of anti-Israel activity carried out and promoted by Israeli academics. One example: former University of Haifa professor Ilan Pappe, infamous for his virulent opposition to Zionism and everything the Jewish state stands for. Acknowledging that this is an extreme case - and emphasizing that "luckily, the vast majority of college professors here do not hold such positions" - still, she says, there are a lot more out there than the rest of us realize. And when she says "the rest of us," she means the taxpayers, for example, and private donors, both of whom contribute to the salaries of such teachers. It is for this reason, explains Barnett, that it is important for all concerned to know how their shekels, dollars and euros are being spent. As for IAM's own funding, Barnett says its backers are donors who give contributions to the universities here. "Most of them are from abroad," she says. "They are Zionists with a love of Israel, who consider helping to boost higher education here crucial." According to Barnett, "They get very disappointed and angry when they see what goes on occasionally at these institutions they support." Barnett, 42, who works out of her home in Even Yehuda researching the writings, lectures and statements of Israeli academics - which she both posts on her Web site ( and sends out to a large mailing list - considers this "a calling." It is a calling that became clear to her gradually, through previous positions, one of which was her work at The Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress, headed by Daniel Doron. It was during that period, she says, that she began to translate articles by syndicated columnist Daniel Pipes into Hebrew. And Campus Watch is one of the projects promoted by Pipes's Middle East Forum. Barnett says it's hard to measure the success of IAM. Still, she is happy to report that, as a result of her efforts, and those of a long list of dedicated advisers (among them former consul general to Miami Dr. Yitzchak Ben-Gad, Prof. Eli Pollak, Prof. Edward Alexander, Prof. Shlomo Sharan and Dr. Mordechai Kedar), there is "an increase in awareness of the phenomenon, and more and more people are interested in helping us examine and put a stop to it." What caused you to reach the conclusion that this endeavor was necessary in this country, of all places? It was very obvious how necessary it had become. Not that its source is a new phenomenon. Academics here have been actively outspoken against the state for many years now. But over the past few years, the situation has grown increasingly worse - with certain academics calling for betraying the country and for refusing to fight. They began openly supporting the Palestinian cause, and doing things like going to the Mukata to protect Yasser Arafat from "Israeli harm." Such activities were and are carried out not just by university professors, but by European governments, NGOs and other kinds of activists. One reason for this is that this provides them the status of human-rights upholders and champions of peace. Ironically, however, it derives from their fear of Palestinian terrorism. Conscious that Palestinian society is one of the most violent in our times, these people think that, by helping the Palestinians, they will be spared somehow. I also believe they have only personal interest at heart. I don't think those people really believe Israel is an apartheid, Nazi-like state. But as soon as they use those phrases, they are awarded recognition and a following abroad. They get many benefits from this, among them invitations to lecture and the ability to publish books that will be widely read. There's a lot of money in it. But the transition from this supposedly noble cause - and self-interest - to a betrayal of the country is a very fine line, and one that's easy to cross. Are you saying there is a fine line between freedom of speech and treason? Isn't it the right of every individual or group to demonstrate on behalf of human rights in general and Palestinian rights in particular? Of course it is everyone's right to support causes, which is why we don't even mention all those professors who express criticism of the state and its policies, or who express sympathy with Palestinians. Criticism is not only legitimate in a democracy, but welcome. The problem begins when what is voiced is contempt for the country, and when the attitude is that we, its citizens, are the enemy. How do you determine what constitutes a crossing of the line you draw? We all know the difference between criticism of policies and calling Israel an evil occupier, an apartheid state or a Nazi-like entity. Dirty words do not constitute criticism in the usual sense. And, when a group tries physically to prevent the construction of the security fence, that's crossing a line. What's wrong with a professor who believes in a cause engaging in activism during his free, private time? Let's say someone teaches math by day and goes to demonstrate against the fence by night. Why is it anybody's business? If such a person expresses his opinions about causes he believes in during his spare time, it really isn't anybody's business. But, if he joins a group which goes to a settlement on Shabbat to stir up trouble, that goes beyond expressing views. It goes beyond the norm of an acceptable demonstration. You are actually referring here to radical leftist behavior. Why, then, focus on academia specifically? Furthermore, what is new about the fact that academics tend to be on the Left? It's not new. Nor is this a problem with the Left. I myself am a leftist. The problem is with treasonous betrayal on the part of those who would sell out the country without thinking twice. Does this express itself during the classes they teach? In some cases, yes, but not all. It also depends on what they teach. If they're teaching math, it doesn't happen. Political science is a different story. Do they actually teach their classes according to their political views? Certainly, and they don't even hide it. They think the university is their platform for furthering their extremism. Have you encountered any connection between academics here and their counterparts in Europe, who continue to demand boycotts of Israeli professors? Of course. There are even professors here who support those boycotts. Isn't it peculiar that professors here would support a boycott that has a direct negative effect on them personally? It may be peculiar, but it's the reality. How do you explain it? As the desire to suck up to and be accepted by the enemy. What is your ultimate purpose in exposing what you consider inappropriate behavior on the part of Israeli academics - to show the philanthropists who give money to the universities where their donations are going? Our main purpose is to exert pressure. It wouldn't occur to me to do anything to harm the universities by having their funding halted. But you have to understand that Israeli universities are public institutions, and academics' salaries are paid by the Israeli taxpayer. We have to show the way in which anti-Israel academics are spitting into the well from which they drink. On whom, then, are you exerting pressure - university administrations? Yes, university heads are influenced by pressure from donors. Can you give a specific example of this influence? Was any course halted or professor reprimanded for the activities you monitor? I can't give a specific example, because the universities don't share this information with me. What I can say, however, is that most of the professors who had been blatant about such activities have ceased to be. Here I have to stress that we're not talking about a majority of academics. It's a small group on the radical Left. And it's hard to measure, because their activities go in waves. But before we started Israel Academic Monitor, the situation was far worse. Since then, a stubborn core of traitors remains - and I am purposely using the word "traitors" - who continue to do what they do. If what you're talking about is treason, why bother with "exerting pressure," instead of filing complaints with the police? It's true that the state has laws against treason. But those apply to very specific acts, of calling for Israel's destruction or of passing on actual information to enemies. Those are criminal acts. But shielding Arafat, for example, was not considered treason in the legal sense. I am talking more about emotional treason. Do you think a handful of "emotional traitors" on campus actually have an impact? Of course. We see that most students arrive at the university as Zionists, and many complete their studies as anti-Zionists. At all the universities? Well, not at Bar-Ilan, though there, too, there are a few professors of the sort I'm talking about. Still, they are very few and far between. At the other universities, the number is greater, but we don't have data on the actual numbers. How do you keep an eye on the phenomenon? I search for words like "occupation" and "apartheid" in writings and lectures, and then look into them more closely. There are many who would say that it's one thing to watch out for academics who use the word "apartheid" in relation to Israel, but that "occupation" is not only acceptable, but used by a number of the country's politicians. That's true. And the word "occupation" isn't sufficient by itself. It's an issue of context. But very often, the two words come together. And you're right about the politicians - [former education minister] Yuli Tamir, for example, allowed the use of the word "nakba" [Arabic for "catastrophe," to describe the establishment of the State of Israel]. You referred to yourself as a leftist, yet the things you say sound quite right-wing. The truth is that my eyes were opened in 2000. Up until that point, I really believed that we were headed toward peace, because we were going to end the occupation, and the conflict would therefore end. I woke up when I realized that my perception was wrong. I understood that the conflict was not our fault - that the other side was not interested in having peace with us. Not only that; I realized that they are people - with rights, of course - but not a people. They have no common denominator, other than wanting to see Israel destroyed. And that's not sufficient for peoplehood. This is what I understand today that I didn't understand then. The academics whom you monitor would say that Israel never really made a sufficient effort to end the occupation, which is at the root of the conflict to this day. They have reasons for saying that, chief among them financial. There are large organizations and NGOs who get a lot of money to hold such positions. And to get financed, all they have to do is say x,y and z - so they say x,y and z. At which university in Israel is the situation the worst in this respect? I would say Ben-Gurion University. But it varies, depending on the period. Is it true, as many right-wing academics claim, that it's hard for them to get tenure, because they don't toe the left-wing line? Yes, so I've heard from reliable sources. I've also heard many stories about the fact that if there's an opening, and the choice is between a left-wing lecturer and a right-wing one - with equal credentials - that it's clear the former will get the position.

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