Right wing activists march in J'lem R 311.
(photo credit: Reuters)
Two weeks ago it was reported that State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan had asked police
to investigate Ben-Gurion University chemistry lecturer Eyal Nir for incitement
because of a call he made to “break the necks” of a right-wing fringe group. The
same week, Kent State University Professor Julio Pino yelled “death to Israel”
during a lecture by Israeli diplomat Ishmael Khaldi. It is important to examine
not only the merits of these cases but also the wider context of freedom of
expression and the “right” of academics to engage in extremist speech while at
the same time enjoying the presumption that their work with students remains
unbiased and uninformed by their sometimes radical views.
incident took place in June, 2011, after Israelis marched through Jerusalem on
Jerusalem Day. Some of the fringe part of the march included a group that
chanted anti- Arab slogans and whose comments were posted on YouTube. Nir saw
the YouTube video and linked to it on his Facebook page, with a comment in
Hebrew that “gangs of bandits are swarming our country. I call on the world to
come and help break these scoundrels’ necks.”
The comment drew criticism
and numerous comments on Facebook but Nir stood by what he said. He wrote that
the gang in question consisted of a few bullies and that they must be prevented
from carrying out their threats.
“I believe my cry to stop them is
reasonable,” said Nir.
It is worth noting that Eyal Nir is no stranger to
radical politics in Israel. In 2010 he was photographed being arrested by the
IDF during a protest at Nabi Salah in the West Bank. Blogger Alison Ramer wrote
that “Nir was taken into an army jeep for insulting a soldier with a racial
Ben-Gurion University has seemingly stood by Nir, noting in a
statement: “Dr. Nir published his comments as a private individual, on his
personal Facebook page. The university does not take a side in the matter, and
therefore justice should be sought in appropriate legal forum.”
took issue with the comments immediately, establishing an online petition to
have him fired.
THE PROBLEM with Nir’s comments is not whether they
constitute incitement under Israeli law, since the incitement law is, in my
opinion, flawed. The issue that should be raised about Nir’s diatribe is how it
impacts the university environment he teaches in. A review of cases abroad shows
that most faculty members who have been fired for things they said had their
jobs terminated only in connection to comments made in class or which were
directly related to campus activities.
For instance, a Leeds University
lecturer was suspended and took early retirement when he gave an interview to a
student newspaper suggesting that Africans were less intelligent than Europeans.
There do not seem to be any incidents of faculty members having been fired for
statements made outside of the university setting.
However, Peter Van
Onselen, writing in The Australian
, recalled that a colleague once complained
to his university about a column he had written. He took the “view that it
brought the university [a previous employer] into disrepute, and requested that
I be reprimanded for doing the university’s reputation damage,” wrote
Do Nir’s comments bring Ben-Gurion University into disrepute?
Considering the fact that the university has no shortage of radical leftists who
do not hesitate to offer their opinion that Israel is a colonizing, racist
country, it would seem that the university’s reputation could not be tangibly
changed by these newest comments.
The story of the “death to Israel”
comment by Julio Pino, a tenured professor at Kent State, is more nuanced. Pino
is a native of Cuba and a convert to Islam. There is some irony in the fact that
the visiting Israeli diplomat who drew Pino’s ire is himself a Muslim (Mr.
Khaldi is Israel’s first Beduin deputy consul). His outburst took place on
campus. Kent State President Lester Lefton condemned Pino’s outburst, however
according to the American Association of University Professors, “Calling out a
political slogan during a question period falls well within the speech rights of
any member of a university community.”
Most respected academics know the
value of having their students believe classes are not biased against certain
individuals due to race, creed or gender. Since national-religious students in
Israel clearly constitute a creed it is certainly possible that these students
might feel that Nir’s “break their necks” comment was directed at them and would
feel uncomfortable attending his classes. How can one study in such a hostile
environment? Could a black student feel comfortable in a class where she knew
that the lecturer had written in an op-ed that black activists should have their
necks broken? Furthermore, why do academics enjoy a special type of free speech
that no other occupation enjoys? Those defending these “outbursts” seem to
misconstrue the notion of academic freedom, which means a freedom to research,
with the idea that academics have the right to behave in the lowest manner
possible, using outbursts that befit the village drunk more than they do a
holder of a doctorate. When an academic’s behavior is as savage, unrestrained
and brutish as that of someone leaving a pub sloshed at three in the morning,
one wonders where our notion of what constitutes acceptable behavior, and
speech, went wrong.