Borderline Views: Freedom of expression in danger

In recent years it has become acceptable for politically oriented groups to attack academics who express their views.

By
September 5, 2011 21:20
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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.

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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.

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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 Post 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 they work.

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.

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