Thoughts on academic freedom at Pessah

In today’s environment, Martin Buber, Judah Leon Magnes or Yeshayahu Leibowitz would have long been fired from their positions.

By
April 17, 2011 22:13
Jerusalem International Book Fair

bookstore 521. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

 
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Our festivals can be treated in many ways. Some ignore them altogether.

Others are content with the rituals, the food and the family gatherings.

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And for others, it is a time for contemplation, trying to insert contemporary significance into events that happened thousands of years ago.

Pessah is when we contemplate the meaning of freedom. All too often it is physical freedom we think about. We read the story of the Jewish people’s liberation from Egyptian slavery and the transformation into an independent and free nation.

We often compare the Exodus story with the more recent freedoms obtained by the founders of modern Israel, or the civil rights movement in 1960s America (for whom the Exodus story remains a major inspiration), the freedom from apartheid in South Africa and, for many of us, with concerns about the lack of freedom for the Palestinians who live under our political rule. For each of us, the famous words of the Haggada – that we should understand the Exodus story in every generation as though it was happening to us today – is one of the most powerful messages of Pessah.

MY OWN thoughts about freedom are different this year. I am increasingly concerned about how our society is losing its ability to express views in an open fashion.

In a country where, as we always joke, there are five opinions for every three people, we are being constantly attacked and targeted for having the “wrong” views. It has become acceptable to try and silence our views, even to the extent of threatening us with hate mail of a type which, in some countries, would provide grounds for criminal investigation.



For the past few years, I have witnessed concerted and well-planned attacks on my own university by groups of right-wing activists who are unhappy with the political views of some faculty members. This has come to a head in recent months, with attempts to bring pressure on donors and on Knesset members to intervene, and just last week there was an attempt to ban a conference on human rights which took place at the university.

The university leadership finds itself caught in a trap. It does not want to alienate its donors, many of whom, in the comfort of their Diaspora homes, hold extreme anti-democratic views when it comes to Israel. Nor does it want to annoy the members of the Knesset Education Committee in an extreme right-wing government, who would like to impose constraints on the freedom to think and teach by intervening in the academic curriculum.

There is also the academic faculty, which expects its leaders to defend their freedom of expression, and to understand the role of intellectualism in raising social and political awareness.

Were it not for the employment laws of the state relating to tenure, there is a growing feeling among the faculty that some could have been dismissed for expressing their views. Many believe that freedom of expression on Israeli campuses is facing the strongest challenge since the establishment of the Hebrew University back in the 1920s. No doubt, in today’s environment, Martin Buber, Judah Leon Magnes or Yeshayahu Leibowitz would have been fired if the present donors and politicians had their way.

The thought police of the extreme rightwing has grown in strength in recent years. It includes sites such as Campus Watch and Isracampus, well-funded organizations like Im Tirtzu and NGO Monitor, whose objectives are to prevent freedom of expression among all those who do not share their fortress view of the world. For them, anyone who believes in such values as peace, human rights or the universal values of Judaism are collectively labeled as traitors, anti-Zionists and enemies of the Jewish State. In scenes reminiscent of darker days, they send their representatives into universities to record lectures, which are then selectively edited, published on their web sites and used as ammunition to impose an extreme rightwing agenda on public discourse.

The attempt by my own university to prevent a conference on human rights from going ahead last week, and its refusal to allow the conference organizers to use the Senate Hall for the main session, was a knee-jerk reaction to this form of pressure.

A similar event occurred last year, when the Center for Beduin Studies was forced to relocate part of its conference following political pressure on the university.

As it turned out, last week’s conference was an orderly, well-planned, well-attended discussion, including many critical opinions and positions, as would be expected from any university proud of its role as a thought-provoking institution.

The right-wing groups openly attended, filmed and took notes, and even held a demonstration (attended by few participants) but, alas, when it came to the facts were unable to come up with any “incriminating” evidence of sedition or treason.

But that did not prevent them from writing blog posts or sending mass mailings to their supporters throughout the Jewish world describing the evil things being done in the name of the university. After all, why should a few truths be allowed to get in the way of an increasingly wellfunded attempt to impose a narrow and isolationist political ideology, one born out of perpetual fear of the outside world and of anyone who thinks differently? University leaders must ensure that freedom of expression is not trampled on. Due to political pressure, they have become slaves to their external environment instead of categorically standing behind freedom and diversity, as befits a university.

It is they who should be sitting down this Pessah and contemplating the meaning of freedom, before Israel’s universities become subject to the Orwellian restrictions of the right-wing thought police.

The writer is Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The views expressed are his alone.

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