I write a column in a newspaper for two purposes. One is to inform, the other is to contribute to the public debate by presenting views which are not always popular to the specific readership, but which are designed to raise questions and debate. I write as an individual and am personally responsible for the views expressed in my columns. However, those views are informed by my professional experience, be it as a dean at an Israeli university, a researcher in the field of geopolitics, border studies and conflict resolution, or as someone who is intensely engaged with the Jewish world both in Israel and throughout the Diaspora, in the dual worlds of both secular and religious, settlers and peace activists.
This could be labeled as form of professional and personal schizophrenia.
But this is a country where people remain categorized within their own rigid boxes – they tend to think alike, dress alike and meet with their own “type” of people – the crossing of social, religious or personal borders is not common. If and when it does happen, it is much more common among immigrants who have grown up in multi-cultural societies, than it is amongst native Israelis. This narrow way of thinking about society is as true of the secular left as it is of the religious right. Neither are very open to the expression of diverse or contrasting views, and if the former are a bit more willing to listen than are the latter, that does not necessarily mean they are prepared to accept the legitimacy of the argument coming, as it does, from the “other” world.
It is normal to expect people to disagree with my views, and if my inbox is empty when I awake on a Tuesday morning, many hours after the column has been seen by the Jewish community of North America, then I have the feeling that perhaps I have not made my point clearly enough. Over the years, many editors have advised me not to take to heart the responses, especially as 80-90 percent will always be from those who are annoyed or disturbed by the views expressed, rather than those who are in agreement.
I never read the talkbacks and, given the fact that I knowingly write
for a paper which, with its global readership, has a right-of-center
readership and political position in most of its editorials and columns,
I don’t let any of the responses, even when they are vitriolic,
insulting and plain vicious (as they often are), get under my skin.
If I did, then I shouldn’t be writing such columns in the first place.
I initially started writing a column for The Jerusalem Post
back in the
late 1990’s but was, after a period of 6 years, unceremoniously let go
because of my political positions, during a period (1993) when the Post
had moved to what can only be described as an extreme right wing
position. One of my last columns, discussing what I termed the “unholy
alliance” between the religious right-wing settlers and the evangelical
right wing in the USA, caused great consternation among some of the
readers (and perhaps funders) of the newspaper at the time. This was
undoubtedly one of the final straws which brought about the cessation of
my column at that time.
Some years later, after a concerted attempt by the previous editor of
the paper, David Horovitz, to move the paper back into a more moderate
position, albeit still clearly on the right of Israeli and Jewish
politics, I agreed to start writing again.
From that period until today, the paper has been as good as its word,
never intervening in the views expressed in my column, even when they
anger much of the readership.
At most, my columns are shortened (asking an academic to write columns
of no more than 900-1000 words is a major task – we normally never get
going before the first 3000 words have been written) and the choice of
the title remains the prerogative of the editor.
I made it clear I would not agree to be the only left-of-center “fig
leaf,” and I was satisfied that I had at least three regular partners –
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Knesset speaker and director of the New
Israel Fund, peace activist and director of IPCRI Gershon Baskin, and
columnist Larry Derfner. But as time has moved on, that short list
is becoming even shorter as first Chazan, and just this past week
Derfner, have been forced to cease writing their columns.
Freedom of expression is under attack in Israel. It is happening on
university campuses where, in recent years, it has become acceptable for
politically oriented groups to attack academics who express their
views, especially if they are left of center. There is a growing move to
target donors and promotion committees in an attempt to impose a
political thought police on the places where freedom of expression
should be as broad as is possible, and university presidents and rectors
are all too quick to investigate complaints which are sent to them by
well-known right-wing activists.
Universities display ambivalence when members of faculty take to writing
populist columns such as this one. They are happy for the name of the
university to appear when the article does not raise political
controversy or when it highlights front-line research, but not when the
topic is one which will bring a negative response. They request, at the
least, that the writer state that the views expressed are his/hers alone
and do not represent any formal position of the institution for which
Unlike the universities, the media is not always necessarily neutral by
definition. As much as the Post is a media outlet with a center right
viewpoint, so Haaretz is a newspaper with a clear left-of-center,
liberal position. The ideological newspapers of the left, Davar and Al
Hamishmar, have long disappeared, to be replaced by the right wing Makor
Rishon and a host of rightwing and religious radio stations, most
notably Arutz Sheva. Another important media outlet are the weekly
parsha (Torah portion) sheets which have grown exponentially in recent
years and are distributed for free in the country’s synagogues, all of
which use religious teachings as a basis for expounding right-wing
political messages. The days when the media was supposed to be
controlled by the left are long gone, and the main media outlets have
now moved along the political spectrum, probably reflecting much of the
country’s changing public opinion.
A good university and a good media outlet is one which allows for the
widest possible diversity and freedom of expression, one which does not
bow to pressure of its donors or its readers when they express anger or
discontent with the views expressed by one of their professors or
columnists. The Post will be the poorer for discontinuing the voice of
Larry Derfner, as it is without the voice of Chazan. In the battle for
readers, it will be difficult to regain the center ground it once
occupied, almost twenty years ago, and the informed public will be the
poorer for it.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.