How to make the next Buber

New BGU dean rails against academic boycotts.

DavidNewman311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
David Newman is concerned. He is concerned about the lack of debate inIsraeli society and the borders we have put up between ourselves aswell as the borders that we have failed to put up with thePalestinians, and he is concerned about the state of ideas in a worldthat has become increasingly focused on management, efficiency and theprofit margin.
A political scientist from the Department ofPolitics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Newman,53, specializes in political geography, which he defines as “the studyof the way human spaces and territories are shaped and formed.” Putmore simply, much of his work deals with borders.
In aninterview with The Jerusalem Post – where he also writes a biweeklyopinion column titled Borderline Views – to mark his election last weekas the next dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences atBGU, Newman explained his views on the role of universities, the stateof democracy, the peace process and his efforts to counter academicboycotts against Israel.
The UK-born and educated professor, whowill head one of the largest academic faculties in the country with 21departments and more than 250 professors, isn’t afraid to be criticalof academia in general or of his own university. While he states thatthe country’s universities are “top-rate institutions” and notes thatthree of them are in the top 200 globally – the Technion, the HebrewUniversity and the Weizmann Institute – he questions whether sciencestill holds the same status it used to here and warns that ideas arebeing sacrificed on the altar of the marketplace.
“We’re allvery aware that a lot of the top brains are fleeing Israel,” he says.“Many of the top academics, particularly in North America, areIsraelis, because the opportunities and the wages here aren’t anywherenear as good as those being offered elsewhere. So unless you believethat this is your place for personal or Zionist reasons, if you areonly looking at things from a professional standpoint and you areoffered a place at Harvard or Stanford or UCLA, the chances are you aregoing to take it.
“There has been a big effort over the past fewyears to bring back scientists to Israel, but that’s very much focusedon hard sciences. That’s tremendously important and I have no criticismof 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 acertain extent we are part of a worldwide trend where we much lessvalue those things which can’t be measured in hard economic terms, suchas the humanities and the liberal arts.
“When I say that, Idon’t even mean the area that I work in, but areas such as literature,language, philosophy, history – and in Israel Jewish philosophy, andthis should be the place where you have the best research in the worldin Jewish thought, Jewish philosophy, Jewish history – but there arefewer students studying those subjects today than there were 40 yearsago, and there is a feeling that governments and even some universityadministrators are not interested in developing these areas.
“Whenyou are raising money for medicine and chemistry, you can raisehundreds of thousands of euros. What you need for humanities,literature and language is open minds, good libraries and goodarchives, and they aren’t necessarily considered important thingstoday. They are not valued as highly today as they were 20 or 30 or 40years ago.
“In Israeli academia and in Israeli society as awhole, I think we’re less open to discourse and discussion andlistening and debating with each other, and I see very much the role ofa university as pushing forward the best research and the best minds inall areas of science. I think the role of a dean today in a Faculty ofSocial Sciences and Humanities is not only to do the daily management,but really to restate the role of discourse and ideas and philosophywithin society, because I think that is part of what this country isabout and we have to be very careful not to lose it.”
What then does Newman suggest be done?
“Ithink first of all we have to accept there are certain things that cannever be measured in terms of economic cost and benefit,” he says.“What has happened in a lot of universities today is that they havebeen taken over by managers who are not academics or by academics whohave become managers. If you want good philosophers, if you want toproduce the next [Martin] Buber, then you have to accept that you’regoing to subsidize those things. There is a profit and loss, but it’snot measured in economic terms; it’s measured in the contribution thatyou give to society and the way that people’s minds are opened todebate and ideas and morality.
“Society must have places whereyou can have discussion for the sake of ideas and not necessarily forbringing in profits. Universities are about the development of thehuman brain, not about efficiency and economic profits – and if the twoclash, we have to ensure that society continues to value the essentialprinciples of what a university is.”
ANOTHER ISSUE of concernfor Newman is the increasing involvement of boards of governors anddonors in Israel’s political discourses. More specifically, he chargesthat there are those on the right wing who have attempted to silenceprofessors with post-Zionist views by threatening to cut funding forthe universities where they teach – his own department was the targetof such threats after one of its lecturers, Neve Gordon, published anop-ed in The Los Angeles Times calling for a boycott of Israel.
“Inrecent years, there has been an over-politicization of universitysupporters,” says Newman. “Members of boards of governors and leadersof Diaspora Jewish communities, all of whom do tremendously importantwork on behalf of Israeli universities, have started to make theircontributions dependent on the political opinions of the faculty. Insome cases they have even tried to intervene in the hiring and firingprocess of faculty, because they don’t like their political views.Thankfully they have no influence whatsoever over these academicmatters – hiring, firing and promotions continue to be judged accordingto criteria of academic excellence and international reputation.
“Ifboards of governors react to situations like that with Neve Gordon, iftheir reaction is to say, well, I’m not going to therefore fund thatuniversity, they’ll end up being the only ones to actually undertake aboycott because there is no real significant boycott of Israeliacademia taking place – not even in Europe.
“But if theuniversity donors come along and say we won’t develop a new library ora new health center at that university because they don’t like thepolitical views of some of the faculty, then it is they who are doingthe boycotting in practice. I don’t have to agree with the politicalviews of either the far Right or the far Left, but this cannot, mustnot, be a reason for trampling the basic values of academic freedom andfreedom of speech and discussion. The hundreds and hundreds of letterswhich international academics have sent to the heads of Israel’suniversities because they are worried about the potential damage toacademic freedom far outweighs the negative impact of the radical viewsof a few academic faculty.”
Newman is actively involved inefforts to prevent boycotts of Israeli academia, particularly in theUK, and while he states categorically that boycotts are unethical anddefeat the very purpose they are supposed to serve, he warns thatputting the whole debate down to anti-Semitism is self-defeating anddamaging to Israel’s image.
“Regarding the boycott proposals, Ithink there is a huge difference between legitimate criticism of Israeland its policies and saying we think Israel was born out of sin andtherefore we need to boycott Israeli academia. Collective boycotts areunethical. Boycotts shut down that one place where you have realdiversity of opinion, a real bringing together of Israeli andPalestinian academics. It is an ‘own goal’ because they will shut downthe sort of dialogue and discourse they think should be taking place.
“Thereare definitely anti-Semites out there who are tying into the boycottdebate and are using Israeli as a nice easy excuse for theiranti-Semitism. But to say that the whole boycott debate is due toanti-Semitism is too simplistic and is self-defeating.”
NEWMAN’SIRE is directed in particular at organizations like NGO Monitor –headed by another frequent Post contributor, Gerald Steinberg – CampusWatch and IsraCampus.
“I think what NGO Monitor is doing is veryharmful to Israel’s democracy. We sell ourselves as the only realdemocracy in the Middle East, but what it is saying is that in thisreal democracy you can’t be critical of the state anymore, you can’tfund pro-human rights organizations and so on. I think we are damagingour own image as a democracy.
“In universities there are a lotof attacks on left-wing academics, there are all these sorts of siteslike Campus Watch and IsraCampus. You go on to IsraCampus and you justhappen to be a supporter of the two-state solution and you aretreasonous and traitorous. It’s just become so absurd. This country canbe proud of the fact that, despite the ongoing conflict and securitythreats, we have created human rights organizations such as B’Tselem,Rabbis for Human Rights [of which his father, Rabbi Isaac Newman, is aformer chairman], and that we promote Jewish-Arab dialogue andcooperation through grassroots programs, many of them promoted by theNew Israel Fund. This is the very best of Jewish values and we, as asociety, should be proud of such organizations, rather than trying tosilence them and prevent them from operating.”
There is, Newmancharges, a concerted campaign by the right wing to delegitimize anyonewho is critical of Israel and its “occupation.”
“The NGO Monitorand its criticism of the New Israel Fund is just a part of what isgoing on,” he says. “In my view there is a concerted campaign. It’svery interesting that all these right-wing groups insist ontransparency on who’s funding what organizations and what academics,but they themselves refuse to divulge who is funding Im Tirtzu, NGOMonitor, IsraCampus and Campus Watch.”
Newman believes thesetrends are part of an emerging threat to democracy and cites a recentpoll published by Haaretz showing that more than 50 percent of Israeliyouth believe there should be limitations on freedom of speech if it’scritical of Israeli policy.
“That’s a very dangerous approach,”he warns. “I live and work in a university, on the whole with amajority of left-of-center academics who see me as being a bit toomainstream and too traditional. At home I live in a neighborhood and goto a synagogue where people are way, way to the right of me and so I’mconstantly challenged. It’s very important to be challenged. I thinkthat one of the big problems of Israeli society is that the Left livewith the Left, the Right live with the Right; they agree with eachother, they dress like each other and pray like each other. They don’tsufficiently challenge their own views. I find that one of theinteresting things in my life is that I am constantly challenged fromthe left and the right and I find that very invigorating.”
WHILENEWMAN says that much of his work as a political geographer is “ivorytower stuff” dealing with issues such as the significance of borders ina globalized world and how borders have come back in big way after9/11, he has also been actively involved in Track II negotiations withthe Palestinians since the Oslo process. His analysis of the currentsituation is that it’s still possible to reach fixed borders with thePalestinians, but that the clock is ticking down on the two-statesolution.
“I don’t think that the big issue today is so much thelocation of borders,” he says. “Of course it’s a problem andsettlements impact borders whether you think settlements should bethere or shouldn’t be there or whether you think they are legal orillegal, moral or immoral, and so on. There’s no question that theexistence of 300,000 settlers impacts our ability to implementborders... It’s possible, but it gets more difficult by the day.
“Thebig issue is that wherever you draw the line, whether it’s the GreenLine or anywhere else, there are always going to be a large number ofsettlers who are going to be on the wrong side of that border, andthat’s the big dilemma facing Israel. Because we’re not going to leavethem there, and we’re going to have to find some form of solution. Ifit’s evacuation, well, Gaza isn’t a precedent because that was 6,000people and this time its perhaps 120,000 people, ideologically rigidpeople. So you can reach fixed borders but not without a cost.”
Toreach any agreement, Newman says, creative thinking will be required,and he doesn’t rule out the concept of parallel statehood, which hasbeen floated recently by some European intellectuals and Palestinians.
“Itis hard to know what is workable and what isn’t these days. But giventhe fact that we don’t want a one-state solution, that the two-statesolution seems almost impossible to implement under traditional ideasof territorial separation and clearly demarcated borders, we need a lotof thinking outside the box. Parallel statehood, involvingcross-citizenship, may be one of those ideas – a single territory,without borders, but different citizenships. I am not sure that itwould be feasible, but it is clear that we have to be more original inthe way we think about resolving the conflict. All of the traditionalsolutions don’t appear to be working.
“One of the problems isthat today a lot of the people involved in peacemaking are ex-army andsecurity people – but their entire vision is based on a securitizationviewpoint, how to ensure security. We don’t have enough civil societyviews of peace, beyond grassroots organizations who think about peaceand cooperation in an entirely different way.”
For Newmanthough, more than anything, the success or failure of the peace processis all down to politicians standing up and taking tough decisions. “Ifyou 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 goingto make peace. The whole structure of relations between us and thePalestinians had changed, but because of the laws that existed at thetime banning talking and so on, no one had ever really sat down todiscuss all these issues in detail.
“Today it’s exactly the opposite. You don’t need another five years ofinterim talks, everything has been discussed, the alternatives are outthere. Politicians have to make the decisions, but the maps and thedetails are out there locked away in offices in Jerusalem and Ramallah,in Brussels and Washington, but of course there’s no euphoria, there’sno one who wants to talk to anyone, there’s no basis of trust, so it’sthe 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 sidedidn’t live up to its commitments.’ One side didn’t stop buildingsettlements; the other side didn’t stop terrorism and suicide bombers.I’m not making any qualitative comparison between the two, but they arethe big issues for each side looking at the other side. I think todayyou don’t have strong charismatic leadership on either side, and youhave a much bigger problem today than 15 years ago of being able tocarry your domestic constituency. What is the price you are going topay, what is the cost you are willing to pay from your domesticconstituency to get an agreement on the ground? When you’ve tried itand it’s failed, you’re much more suspicious than when it’s all outthere to be tried.”