"Kindly remove me from your mailing list; I have no patience for your tiresome,
hackneyed, outdated rantings” –An e-mail from Prof. David Shulman, the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem, after receiving my last opinion column, “Reassessing
root causes and red herrings.”
Barely a week after the Technion’s Dan
Shechtman was awarded the Nobel prize in Chemistry, the sixth Israeli laureate
in 10 years, would appear inauspicious timing for a caustic rebuke of Israeli
But although the nation’s institutes of higher learning can
indeed point to an impressive accumulation of accomplishments, it has a much
darker side as well, which can no longer be ignored.
True, much of the
intellectual output of Israel’s universities has contributed immensely to the
bolstering the country — both in terms of physical security and international
stature. Lamentably, this is not the whole picture.
One of the gravest challenges facing Israel today is
the international assault on its legitimacy. Much of this assault is being
precipitated — certainly facilitated and exacerbated — by prominent figures
within the Israeli academe.
Some of this is a result of purposeful intent
on the part of self-professed post- /anti-Zionist faculty members, some the
result of misguided mindlessness on the part of purported Zionist ones. But
whatever the motivation, the time has come to illuminate these dark corners and
drive out the lengthening shadow of disgrace.
For an increasingly
visible, vocal and vitriolic sector among Israeli academics is playing an
influential role in the public discourse on the Arab-Israeli conflict that can
only be defined as detrimental, dysfunctional and, regrettably, at times
Motivated mainly by fear of donor desertion, university
authorities have attempted to downplay the scope of the phenomenon – trying to
dismiss it as marginal in influence and negligible in size.
This is a
manifest misrepresentation of the facts.
Although it is true that this
malaise does not affect — or is that infect? — large swathes of Israel’s
academic community, and that it is mainly prevalent in the faculties of social
sciences and humanities (including law), this does not accurately reflect the
extent of its pernicious impact.
For it is in these faculties that the
nation’s politicians, journalists, pollsters, political advisers and analysts
are to a large degree molded. It is here that the cognitive filters and
frames-of-reference that influence political analysis and decision-making are
It is here that norms regarding the politically “permissible” and
“prohibited” are lain down, and the concepts demarcating the limits of
“legitimacy” drawn up.The tyranny of intellectual orthodoxy
then, scholars in these faculties have far more impact on the public discourse —
at least as it impinges on the Arab-Israeli conflict — than their colleagues in
zoology, botany or microbiology.
Moreover, by the nature of their
activities, they interface with much greater frequency freedom and familiarity
with the mainstream media outlets, both national and
Indeed, on the national level, many mainstream media
personalities are products of Israel’s social science/humanities
Sadly, since the mid-’80s, a growing phenomenon of
intellectual orthodoxy has enveloped these faculties.
It is not that a
rigid uniformity is imposed on research agendas or teaching programs, but rather
that certain perspectives are entirely excluded from them. This is not the
result of a directive from any official university organ, but a de facto custom
applied almost without exception across the entire academic landscape.
heretical departure is brooked from this never-mentioned but universally
implemented stricture. Prohibition of divergence from orthodoxy is meticulously
maintained. This requires that facts be distorted, truth suppressed, dissent
silenced and dissenters ridiculed.
Thus no approach that challenges the
validity of the Palestinian narrative or questions the wisdom of Palestinian
statehood has been raised in any serious fashion, or in any serious forum,
within mainstream academia. There is no significant discussion of the
consequences of territorial withdrawal, of the prudence of political concessions
or of any alternative paradigm for the future of Israel as the nation-state of
Jewish people, other than the two-state model — unless of course you count
the post-/anti-Zionist un-Jewish state-of all- its-citizens.
two-state principle has become the holy grail of academic discourse and acquired
almost the status of the Law of Gravity.
Thus any line of inquiry that
might undermine the perception of both its inevitability and/or desirability
must be barred at all cost. Any evidence — no matter how compelling or
well-documented — that might, for example, suggest a lack of sincerity on the
part of the Palestinians, cast doubt as to the nature of their true intentions
or their real motivation, or raise suspicions as the authenticity of the
demands, must be studiously ignored or immediately denigrated as inadmissibly
Which brings us to Prof. Shulman’s demand to be removed from my
mailing list.Archetypical arrogance
Of course Prof. Shulman is entitled
to be spared any e-mails from me. For that a simple “Please remove me from your
mailing list” would suffice. But the good professor felt obliged to supplement
his request with a “scholarly critique” of my most recent column, couched in
The arrogant invective that Shulman felt appropriate
to resort to is typical of the attitude I described above.
will remember, my previous column largely consisted of citations and analyses of
Palestinian/Arab declarations and documents, which seem to indicate that a
plausible case can be made that the origins of Arab enmity towards a Jewish
state are not territorial, but existential.
And while some of the
passages quoted might aptly be characterized as “rants” they are
Arab/Palestinian rants, not mine.
Neither would Shulman’s epithets
“outdated” or “hackneyed” appear fitting.
Indeed, the documents cited are
still valid and the declarations of intent are continuously corroborated — most
recently by Fatah central committee member Abbas Zaki in his
yet-to-be-repudiated proclamation on Al Jazeera (September 23) that the
Palestinians’ real goal is to “to wipe out Israel, and his yet-to-be-retracted
characterization of Netanyahu and Obama as “dirtbags.” (Now there’s a
full-blooded rant for you.) Nor was this an isolated outburst. Indeed it
reflects precisely the sentiments of Nabil Sha’ath, head of Fatah’s foreign
relations, on ANB-TV (July 13), in which he asserted that “We will never
accept... [t]he story of ‘two states for two peoples’... The ‘Jewish state’...
is also unacceptable to us.”
Then there was Saeb Erekat, the recently
resigned chief Palestinian negotiator who wrote in The Guardian (December 10,
2010) that “Disregarding aspirations... [of] Palestinian refugees... more than 7
million people... to return to their homeland, would certainly make any peace
deal signed with Israel completely untenable.”
positions are articulated by senior representatives of the allegedly pragmatic
Fatah movement — not by any extreme Islamist radical.
It is difficult to
resist the urge to urge the good professor to wake and smell the
coffee.Impaired intellectual output
The intolerance of the
(intellectual) “other” by those who habitually preach tolerance of the “other,”
has dramatically impaired the quality of the intellectual output of Israeli
academe regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict, particularly toward the Palestinian
component of it.
This has rendered the academe incapable of — or
unwilling to – evaluate or predict with any precision, events and processes of
crucial importance to the nation. It has certainly rendered any of its input
into the national decision-making process highly suspect, if not hopelessly
What could illustrate this more vividly than the academe's
assessment of the Oslo process? When this “process” began, it received warm,
almost wall-to-wall endorsement from the experts in the nation’s
Policy papers were written, research conducted, articles
published, public declarations of support signed, all expressing professional
optimism as to the rosy prospects this bold new vision heralded for the
There was hardly a dissenting voice.
Beyond the confines
of the ivory tower, however, many expressed their concern, warning that the
“noble vision” was in fact a dangerous fantasy. Then came bitter reality, and
alas, the assessments of the greengrocers, the cabdrivers, the market vendors
proved far more reliable than forecasts of the academic experts and the learned
In the words of Prof. Efraim Karsh, head of Middle East and
Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London: “Had such professional
misconduct occurred in the natural or physical sciences there would have
doubtless been serious consequences: e.g. the collapse of a bridge following
phoney engineering calculations, dangerous side effects hidden during the
development of a new medicine, etc. ...Yet it would seem that when it comes to
the social sciences or the humanities...
the researcher can escape
punishment for the worst kind of malpractice.”
Who could disagree? For in
these disciplines it appears that advocacy of Palestinian statehood has become
an overriding consideration to which all must be subordinated, including the
conduct of intellectual inquiry and the norms of academic
discourse.Abuse of position and prestige
But it is not only what Israeli
academics have failed to do that is of concern. What they have done is even more
Many — some unwitting, others wittingly — have thrown their
weight behind the burgeoning drive to delegitimize Israel internationally,
particularly in intellectual circles across the globe.
frequent use — or rather abuse — is made of academic titles or positions to
create an aura of authority on issues where none exists.
Take for example
the good Prof. Shulman, who is listed at Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic
Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. On his website he details his
areas of academic expertise as the history of religion in South India,
poetry/poetics in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit; Dravidian linguistics; and
Carnatic music, none of which appears to have any relevance for the Arab-Israeli
Yet making use of his academic credentials, he blogs regularly
in The New York Review of Books, vilifying Israel and validating much of the
vitriol of its detractors.
Thus almost immediately following the IDF
interception of the Mavi Marama in its attempt to break the naval quarantine of
Gaza, he applied his expertise in South Asian culture to the realm of maritime
law and national security.
With dismissive disdain for the official
Israel version, and seemingly suggesting that the serious wounds inflicted on
the IDF commandos were no more than they deserved, he sneers: “Spokesmen for
both the army and the government repeatedly said that the soldiers were in
danger of being lynched — as if they were innocent victims of an ambush rather
than, in effect, state-sponsored pirates attacking a convoy carrying
humanitarian aid in international waters.”
This is merely a single
example of a myriad of insidious misrepresentations of Israel and Israelis
action by a myriad of Israeli academics, abusing the exercise of academic
After all, this freedom was intended principally to allow them
unhindered pursuit of truth in their chosen fields of study, not for malicious
misportrayal of their country and its policies.
Such examples are far too
numerous to catalog in this essay, but some will be dealt with in future
columns, for this is an issue that has far too long been neglected.A
giant pall of shame
Israeli academe will have much to answer for to future
generations. For despite its long list of illustrious accomplishments, a giant
pall of shame and disgrace is beginning to rise above it — shame for what it has
done; guilt for what it has not. Watch this space of more on this topic.