How to make the next Buber

New BGU dean rails against academic boycotts.

May 11, 2010 05:11
David Newman.

DavidNewman311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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David Newman is concerned. He is concerned about the lack of debate in Israeli society and the borders we have put up between ourselves as well as the borders that we have failed to put up with the Palestinians, and he is concerned about the state of ideas in a world that has become increasingly focused on management, efficiency and the profit margin.

A political scientist from the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Newman, 53, specializes in political geography, which he defines as “the study of the way human spaces and territories are shaped and formed.” Put more simply, much of his work deals with borders.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post – where he also writes a biweekly opinion column titled Borderline Views – to mark his election last week as the next dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at BGU, Newman explained his views on the role of universities, the state of democracy, the peace process and his efforts to counter academic boycotts against Israel.

The UK-born and educated professor, who will head one of the largest academic faculties in the country with 21 departments and more than 250 professors, isn’t afraid to be critical of academia in general or of his own university. While he states that the country’s universities are “top-rate institutions” and notes that three of them are in the top 200 globally – the Technion, the Hebrew University and the Weizmann Institute – he questions whether science still holds the same status it used to here and warns that ideas are being sacrificed on the altar of the marketplace.

“We’re all very aware that a lot of the top brains are fleeing Israel,” he says. “Many of the top academics, particularly in North America, are Israelis, because the opportunities and the wages here aren’t anywhere near as good as those being offered elsewhere. So unless you believe that this is your place for personal or Zionist reasons, if you are only looking at things from a professional standpoint and you are offered a place at Harvard or Stanford or UCLA, the chances are you are going to take it.

“There has been a big effort over the past few years to bring back scientists to Israel, but that’s very much focused on hard sciences. That’s tremendously important and I have no criticism of the hard sciences and the sort of stuff that goes on at Ben-Gurion, such as water technology and desert technology, but I think to a certain extent we are part of a worldwide trend where we much less value those things which can’t be measured in hard economic terms, such as the humanities and the liberal arts.

“When I say that, I don’t even mean the area that I work in, but areas such as literature, language, philosophy, history – and in Israel Jewish philosophy, and this should be the place where you have the best research in the world in Jewish thought, Jewish philosophy, Jewish history – but there are fewer students studying those subjects today than there were 40 years ago, and there is a feeling that governments and even some university administrators are not interested in developing these areas.

“When you are raising money for medicine and chemistry, you can raise hundreds of thousands of euros. What you need for humanities, literature and language is open minds, good libraries and good archives, and they aren’t necessarily considered important things today. They are not valued as highly today as they were 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.

“In Israeli academia and in Israeli society as a whole, I think we’re less open to discourse and discussion and listening and debating with each other, and I see very much the role of a university as pushing forward the best research and the best minds in all areas of science. I think the role of a dean today in a Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities is not only to do the daily management, but really to restate the role of discourse and ideas and philosophy within society, because I think that is part of what this country is about and we have to be very careful not to lose it.”

What then does Newman suggest be done?

“I think first of all we have to accept there are certain things that can never be measured in terms of economic cost and benefit,” he says. “What has happened in a lot of universities today is that they have been taken over by managers who are not academics or by academics who have become managers. If you want good philosophers, if you want to produce the next [Martin] Buber, then you have to accept that you’re going to subsidize those things. There is a profit and loss, but it’s not measured in economic terms; it’s measured in the contribution that you give to society and the way that people’s minds are opened to debate and ideas and morality.

“Society must have places where you can have discussion for the sake of ideas and not necessarily for bringing in profits. Universities are about the development of the human brain, not about efficiency and economic profits – and if the two clash, we have to ensure that society continues to value the essential principles of what a university is.”

ANOTHER ISSUE of concern for Newman is the increasing involvement of boards of governors and donors in Israel’s political discourses. More specifically, he charges that there are those on the right wing who have attempted to silence professors with post-Zionist views by threatening to cut funding for the universities where they teach – his own department was the target of such threats after one of its lecturers, Neve Gordon, published an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times calling for a boycott of Israel.

“In recent years, there has been an over-politicization of university supporters,” says Newman. “Members of boards of governors and leaders of Diaspora Jewish communities, all of whom do tremendously important work on behalf of Israeli universities, have started to make their contributions dependent on the political opinions of the faculty. In some cases they have even tried to intervene in the hiring and firing process of faculty, because they don’t like their political views. Thankfully they have no influence whatsoever over these academic matters – hiring, firing and promotions continue to be judged according to criteria of academic excellence and international reputation.

“If boards of governors react to situations like that with Neve Gordon, if their reaction is to say, well, I’m not going to therefore fund that university, they’ll end up being the only ones to actually undertake a boycott because there is no real significant boycott of Israeli academia taking place – not even in Europe.

“But if the university donors come along and say we won’t develop a new library or a new health center at that university because they don’t like the political views of some of the faculty, then it is they who are doing the boycotting in practice. I don’t have to agree with the political views of either the far Right or the far Left, but this cannot, must not, be a reason for trampling the basic values of academic freedom and freedom of speech and discussion. The hundreds and hundreds of letters which international academics have sent to the heads of Israel’s universities because they are worried about the potential damage to academic freedom far outweighs the negative impact of the radical views of a few academic faculty.”

Newman is actively involved in efforts to prevent boycotts of Israeli academia, particularly in the UK, and while he states categorically that boycotts are unethical and defeat the very purpose they are supposed to serve, he warns that putting the whole debate down to anti-Semitism is self-defeating and damaging to Israel’s image.

“Regarding the boycott proposals, I think there is a huge difference between legitimate criticism of Israel and its policies and saying we think Israel was born out of sin and therefore we need to boycott Israeli academia. Collective boycotts are unethical. Boycotts shut down that one place where you have real diversity of opinion, a real bringing together of Israeli and Palestinian academics. It is an ‘own goal’ because they will shut down the sort of dialogue and discourse they think should be taking place.

“There are definitely anti-Semites out there who are tying into the boycott debate and are using Israeli as a nice easy excuse for their anti-Semitism. But to say that the whole boycott debate is due to anti-Semitism is too simplistic and is self-defeating.”

NEWMAN’S IRE is directed in particular at organizations like NGO Monitor – headed by another frequent Post contributor, Gerald Steinberg – Campus Watch and IsraCampus.

“I think what NGO Monitor is doing is very harmful to Israel’s democracy. We sell ourselves as the only real democracy in the Middle East, but what it is saying is that in this real democracy you can’t be critical of the state anymore, you can’t fund pro-human rights organizations and so on. I think we are damaging our own image as a democracy.

“In universities there are a lot of attacks on left-wing academics, there are all these sorts of sites like Campus Watch and IsraCampus. You go on to IsraCampus and you just happen to be a supporter of the two-state solution and you are treasonous and traitorous. It’s just become so absurd. This country can be proud of the fact that, despite the ongoing conflict and security threats, we have created human rights organizations such as B’Tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights [of which his father, Rabbi Isaac Newman, is a former chairman], and that we promote Jewish-Arab dialogue and cooperation through grassroots programs, many of them promoted by the New Israel Fund. This is the very best of Jewish values and we, as a society, should be proud of such organizations, rather than trying to silence them and prevent them from operating.”

There is, Newman charges, a concerted campaign by the right wing to delegitimize anyone who is critical of Israel and its “occupation.”

“The NGO Monitor and its criticism of the New Israel Fund is just a part of what is going on,” he says. “In my view there is a concerted campaign. It’s very interesting that all these right-wing groups insist on transparency on who’s funding what organizations and what academics, but they themselves refuse to divulge who is funding Im Tirtzu, NGO Monitor, IsraCampus and Campus Watch.”

Newman believes these trends are part of an emerging threat to democracy and cites a recent poll published by Haaretz showing that more than 50 percent of Israeli youth believe there should be limitations on freedom of speech if it’s critical of Israeli policy.

“That’s a very dangerous approach,” he warns. “I live and work in a university, on the whole with a majority of left-of-center academics who see me as being a bit too mainstream and too traditional. At home I live in a neighborhood and go to a synagogue where people are way, way to the right of me and so I’m constantly challenged. It’s very important to be challenged. I think that one of the big problems of Israeli society is that the Left live with the Left, the Right live with the Right; they agree with each other, they dress like each other and pray like each other. They don’t sufficiently challenge their own views. I find that one of the interesting things in my life is that I am constantly challenged from the left and the right and I find that very invigorating.”

WHILE NEWMAN says that much of his work as a political geographer is “ivory tower stuff” dealing with issues such as the significance of borders in a globalized world and how borders have come back in big way after 9/11, he has also been actively involved in Track II negotiations with the Palestinians since the Oslo process. His analysis of the current situation is that it’s still possible to reach fixed borders with the Palestinians, but that the clock is ticking down on the two-state solution.

“I don’t think that the big issue today is so much the location of borders,” he says. “Of course it’s a problem and settlements impact borders whether you think settlements should be there or shouldn’t be there or whether you think they are legal or illegal, moral or immoral, and so on. There’s no question that the existence of 300,000 settlers impacts our ability to implement borders... It’s possible, but it gets more difficult by the day.

“The big issue is that wherever you draw the line, whether it’s the Green Line or anywhere else, there are always going to be a large number of settlers who are going to be on the wrong side of that border, and that’s the big dilemma facing Israel. Because we’re not going to leave them there, and we’re going to have to find some form of solution. If it’s evacuation, well, Gaza isn’t a precedent because that was 6,000 people and this time its perhaps 120,000 people, ideologically rigid people. So you can reach fixed borders but not without a cost.”

To reach any agreement, Newman says, creative thinking will be required, and he doesn’t rule out the concept of parallel statehood, which has been floated recently by some European intellectuals and Palestinians.

“It is hard to know what is workable and what isn’t these days. But given the fact that we don’t want a one-state solution, that the two-state solution seems almost impossible to implement under traditional ideas of territorial separation and clearly demarcated borders, we need a lot of thinking outside the box. Parallel statehood, involving cross-citizenship, may be one of those ideas – a single territory, without borders, but different citizenships. I am not sure that it would be feasible, but it is clear that we have to be more original in the way we think about resolving the conflict. All of the traditional solutions don’t appear to be working.

“One of the problems is that today a lot of the people involved in peacemaking are ex-army and security people – but their entire vision is based on a securitization viewpoint, how to ensure security. We don’t have enough civil society views of peace, beyond grassroots organizations who think about peace and cooperation in an entirely different way.”

For Newman though, more than anything, the success or failure of the peace process is all down to politicians standing up and taking tough decisions. “If you ask me what the difference is between now and Oslo is,” he says, “at the time of Oslo there was a great euphoria. We were suddenly going to make peace. The whole structure of relations between us and the Palestinians had changed, but because of the laws that existed at the time banning talking and so on, no one had ever really sat down to discuss all these issues in detail.

“Today it’s exactly the opposite. You don’t need another five years of interim talks, everything has been discussed, the alternatives are out there. Politicians have to make the decisions, but the maps and the details are out there locked away in offices in Jerusalem and Ramallah, in Brussels and Washington, but of course there’s no euphoria, there’s no one who wants to talk to anyone, there’s no basis of trust, so it’s the complete opposite situation.

“I think the stumbling block is a lack of trust. Both sides will say, ‘Well, we tried Oslo, and over the next five years the other side didn’t live up to its commitments.’ One side didn’t stop building settlements; the other side didn’t stop terrorism and suicide bombers. I’m not making any qualitative comparison between the two, but they are the big issues for each side looking at the other side. I think today you don’t have strong charismatic leadership on either side, and you have a much bigger problem today than 15 years ago of being able to carry your domestic constituency. What is the price you are going to pay, what is the cost you are willing to pay from your domestic constituency to get an agreement on the ground? When you’ve tried it and it’s failed, you’re much more suspicious than when it’s all out there to be tried.”

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