Claiming Zionism

As the battle between contrary strains of Zionism heats up, are academic freedoms and democracy in Israel seriously under threat?

IM TIRTZU 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
FROM THE BEGINNINGS OF the Zionist movement, and with growing intensity ever since the 1967 Six Day War, two contrary strains of Zionism have been struggling for ideological hegemony: one nationalist and inward-looking, the other humanist and universal.
The collapse of peacemaking with the Palestinians in 2000, the brutal terror of the second intifada and the missile wars from Lebanon and Gaza have led to a tectonic, inward-looking shift to the right in Israeli opinion. This has been exacerbated by a vociferous international campaign to delegitimize Israel and deny it the right to self defense, creating an enhanced sense, especially on the far right, of grave injustice and intellectual siege.
One of the results has been a turning, within a strongly right-wing climate, of the more national-minded Zionists against the universalists, whom they define pejoratively as “post- Zionists” and accuse of giving succor to the delegitimizers abroad.
Leading the attack is a small student group called “Im Tirtzu,” which accuses the “post- Zionists” of aiding the delegitimization process through persistent criticism of Israeli society and, in some cases, by directly handing over potentially incriminating data to bodies like the UN Human Rights Council’s Goldstone Commission, which slammed Israel for the disproportionate use of force in the 2008-9 Gaza campaign.
In the spring, the target was the New Israel Fund, a left-leaning NGO that funds a cluster of human-rights organizations; over the summer and into the autumn, Im Tirzu targeted institutions of higher learning, especially Ben-Gurion University (BGU) in the Negev. The attack on the universities was backed by a research report from the Institute for Zionist Strategies, a like-minded Jerusalem-based right-wing think tank.
In both cases, the campaigns sparked debate in the Knesset, where right-wingers made charges of disloyalty and left-wingers cried McCarthyism.
The charge that the universities are not teaching students the “Zionist narrative” has raised questions about the proper function of institutes of higher learning. The claims that the “post-Zionists” are helping the delegitimizers has spawned heated arguments over who, in fact, is hurting Israel’s international standing: the left, through intellectual collaboration with the country’s detractors, or the right through what is widely perceived as an anti-democratic campaign against academic freedom.
At its core, the argument is over who can claim bragging rights as the true Zionists and the true patriots.
There have also been questions regarding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position. In the past he has called for the toppling of the “old elites,” a stance not dissimilar from Im Tirtzu’s call for a “second Zionist revolution.” This, in turn, raised a string of more fundamental issues: To what extent do Im Tirtzu’s positions resonate in government? And are academic freedoms and democracy in Israel seriously under threat?
THE CURRENT RIGHTIST ATTACK on the universities owes its intellectual origins to a book written a decade ago by Yoram Hazony, the former president of the Jerusalem-based Shalem Institute. In “The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul,” Hazony argued that the prime culprits for the pervasive “post-Zionism” allegedly threatening Israel’s future as a Jewish state were dovish Hebrew University professors like Martin Buber, Shmuel Hugo Bergman and Nathan Rotenstreich, who had shaped intellectual thought in Israel in their left-wing image.
In its call for a second Zionist revolution, Im Tirtzu’s ambitious aim is to alter national consciousness and change the parameters of the intellectual debate by instilling a profound recognition of the justice of Israel’s cause. It calls for a revitalization of Zionist self-belief spearheaded by the student population.
“We are a very small country and to meet the huge external challenges we face, we need young people who can show that we are the ones with right on our side. People who can explain that to themselves and to the world,” Erez Tadmor, one of the co-founders of Im Tirtzu, tells The Report. Tadmor envisages the creation of a new “Zionist elite,” with “more and more people with a Zionist outlook and Zionist answers reaching positions of influence, equipped to deal with the lies and halftruths spread by Israel’s detractors, able to influence them and to influence the public as a whole.”
In the Im Tirtzu view, it is primarily the universities that should be helping to fashion the cadres for the new “Zionist elite.” But, according to Im Tirtzu leaders, instead of Zionist values, the universities are propagating a critical and defeatist post-Zionist ethic. What they would like to see is a “pro-Zionist” takeover of higher education – universities as agents for producing “Zionist elites,” redefining the intellectual debate and helping to stop the erosion in Israel’s international standing.
In mid-July, Im Tirtzu leaders wrote a letter to BGU president Prof. Rivka Karmi, demanding that she “put an end to the anti-Zionist bias” in the politics and government department.
They gave her 30 days to say what she intended to do; otherwise, they threatened, they would urge prospective students to stay away and donors to withhold their funds. “We will request that all the donors submit their contributions to a trust fund managed by a lawyer, to be released to the university after it is factually proved that the bias that exists in the department, as expressed in the faculty make-up and the content of the syllabus, is remedied,” the letter warned.
A few months earlier, Im Tirtzu had published a research document on alleged “post- Zionist” bias in the political science departments of all the universities, except the mainly National Religious Bar-Ilan. It claimed that the BGU politics and government department was the worst offender: Besides the predominantly “post-Zionist” nature of the course syllabi, eight of the 11 tenured faculty members were involved in radical left-wing politics, six had signed a letter supporting refusal to serve in the IDF and department chairman Prof. Neve Gordon had called for an academic boycott of Israeli universities including his own. Im Tirtzu claimed the lopsided nature of the department’s political make-up was the result of academic appointments that had been based on “post- Zionist” leanings, rather than on scholarship.  And it insisted on greater transparency in the appointment process, with a view to establishing greater “political balance.”
INITIALLY, THE IM TIRTZU research document had gone largely unnoticed. Besides some sporadic comments on the simplistic and misleading methodology, the universities had ignored it. But the sharp ultimatum to BGU was of a different order altogether.
The day before that ultimatum was due to expire, Karmi made the threatening letter public, together with a scathing joint response from all Israel’s universities: “No Israeli university has to prove its staff’s love of their homeland to any organization, and certainly not to one that is trying to present a tendentious manipulative document as research to advance its public relations,” the universities declared.
BGU put out a further statement of its own, saying it was not in the habit of conducting examinations of faculty’s political views: “Demands that we do so or demands that we ‘balance’ faculty members according to political views reek of McCarthyism and are diametrically opposed to the democratic values Israel is based on,” it retorted.
For his part, Tadmor accuses the universities of heavy-handedly trying to sweep their “post-Zionist” bias under the carpet. “The people who claim everything should be open to criticism behave like the Catholic Church when anyone dares to criticize them,” he complains.
The universities, though, were not alone in finding the Im Tirtzu ultimatum outrageous. In the US, evangelist Pastor John Hagee immediately cut off his pro-Zionist organization’s funding for Im Tirtzu. In Israel, on the center right, former defense minister Shaul Mofaz of Kadima excoriated Im Tirtzu for threatening “in the name of Zionism” to harm what he called “one of Zionism’s most beautiful, important and successful enterprises.”
“Does anyone believe that some delusional lecturer like Neve Gordon will cause this or that student to stop doing reserve duty? Are Im Tirtzu the only Zionists out there? The answer is no. Unequivocally no,” Mofaz thundered in a late August Maariv op-ed entitled “Tirtzu Bullies.”
And on the left, culture critic Ariel Hirschfeld, head of the Hebrew University’s Hebrew Literature department, accused Im Tirtzu of acting like a “thought police,” and putting Israeli democracy and Zionism itself at risk. “Im Tirtzu is not Zionism. It’s a cancerous outgrowth of an important and crucial idea in the life of this people, and it will be a sorry day indeed if that idea is abandoned to a regime of terror that persecutes ideas,” he wrote in Haaretz.
According to Hirschfeld, Zionism, a rich tapestry of contradictory forces, ever evolving and thriving on self-criticism, needs the “post- Zionist” thinkers “like the air we breathe.”
Even more significant was the impact of the Im Tirtzu letter on the thinking of Education Minister Gidon Sa’ar. In March, he had been a guest speaker at the Im Tirtzu Convention in Jerusalem; in June he declared that the Im Tirtzu arguments against the political science departments should be “thoroughly examined.”
But in late August, after the letter had been made public, he promised to defend the universities against outside intervention.
Calling the Im Tirtzu letter a big mistake, Sa’ar said he was against any step that could hurt donations to Israeli universities, argued that it was totally wrong to advocate hiring or firing of faculty for political reasons, and insisted that he was unreservedly committed to academic freedom.
But the struggle is far from over. In mid- August, the “Zionist camp” produced another study, this time of “post-Zionist” bias in the sociology departments. Conducted by Bar-Ilan political science graduate Hanan Mozes on behalf of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, the 122-page study, updated in October, found “post-Zionist” bias in 30 of the 46 courses it examined, and 420 “post-Zionist” sources on the reading lists as compared to 139 “Zionist” sources, a ratio of about three to one. And, in line with the earlier Im Tirtzu study, it concluded that there is “post- Zionist” bias in the sociology departments in all the universities, except Bar-Ilan.
This time, though, the “post-Zionists” did not hold their peace. BGU’s Prof. Oren Yiftachel, one of the researchers maligned in the report, gave it short shrift. He argued that the distinction it made between “Zionist” and “post-Zionist” research was untenable, in that it placed anything and everything critical of inequalities in Israeli society in the “post- Zionist” basket. It defined only four sociologists as Zionist and 14 as post-Zionist, while 64 percent of the BGU syllabus was ignored as borderline, a hugely significant figure that could have radically altered the quantitative balance.
As for claims that Yiftachel himself perpetuated the “post-Zionist” bias by taking on only “post-Zionist” graduates, the report referred to only seven of 34 of his research students. What about the other 27? he asked.
Most importantly, the Mozes study totally ignored the context and quality of the research, whether it faithfully reflected reality and provided insights into real problems. It was enough for it to be critical of the status quo for it to be labeled “post-Zionist.”
For the self-styled “Zionist camp,” though, this kind of argument cuts little ice. Yisrael Harel, chairman of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, insists that some of what passes for teaching in the sociology departments is perversely anti-Israel and insists that the department heads open their syllabi to outside inspection.
Harel claims, for example, that some departments have removed the works of most of the classic Israeli sociologists, but still teach the thinking of Azmi Bishara, an Israel Arab scholar and former Knesset member, who fled the country to escape charges of collaboration with Hizballah during the 2006 Lebanon war.
“You should also study your enemy, but to make him a classic and remove your own classic sociologists is sick. We need to put our house in order. In other countries, scholars have to present their course syllabi for approval. But here, when someone suggests this, they scream McCarthyism,” he tells The Report.
For Harel, the argument over “Zionism” and “post-Zionism” is a matter of life and death. Without a dominant defining ideology based on the justice of the cause, he argues, Israel will not survive. “If belief in the justice of our cause, which the post-Zionists deny, evaporates, there won’t be a Jewish state because there will be no one left to fight for it,” he avers.
In Harel’s view, solving the Palestinian problem will not reduce the intensity of the “Zionist” – “post-Zionist” dispute. On the contrary, it will only bring it into sharper relief. “All people with liberal, post-national ideas will continue to agitate, perhaps not to dismantle the Israeli state, but to turn it from a Jewish state into ‘a state of all its citizens,’” he maintains.
IN LATE AUGUST, INTELLECTUALS on the left, many of them critical Zionists from the humanist school, hit back at the right-wingers. Thirty-six theater actors, writers and directors signed a letter refusing to perform in a new cultural center in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, scheduled to open in early November. They immediately received the support of more than 150 academics who signed a petition saying that they, too, would refuse to participate in any kind of cultural activity beyond the 1967 Green Line.
Several dozen writers, including Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, signed a similar but separate letter arguing that “legitimization and acceptance of the settler enterprise would cause critical damage to Israel’s chances of achieving a peace accord with its Palestinian neighbors.”
For the humanist school, peace takes precedence over nationalist expansion, which is seen as a threat to the country’s future.
“It was essential to remind Israeli public opinion that there is no consensus on the legitimacy of the settlements. Because then we lose any chance for peace and we sacrifice Israel’s future prospects. It’s a case of Ariel or Israel. Ariel will destroy Israel if it goes on like this,” playwright Yehoshua Sobol, one of the activists behind the protest, tells The Report.
Sobol, who has written much on Jewish historical and Zionist subjects, maintains that the nationalist, right-wing settler-oriented Zionists are not the true heirs to the Herzlian Zionist movement as they claim, but rather a perversion of it. He argues that Herzl’s political Zionism had two goals: securing international legitimization for the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own and, in parallel, actually building the national home. True Zionism recognizes the need for both principles. But, he says, today’s right-wing, settler-oriented version shows total disregard for international legitimization, putting Israel and the entire Zionist enterprise at risk.
“It would be enough for the Americans to withdraw the automatic veto they impose on anti-Israel UN Security Council decisions for us to find ourselves overnight facing sanctions we will not be able to withstand. So while groups like Im Tirtzu and radical right-wing Zionists boast that they are the true patriots, they are in fact the ‘post- Zionists,’ in that they play games with Israel’s legitimization and endanger the country’s future,” he contends.
Indeed, in Sobol’s view, it is the right not the left that is fueling Israel’s delegitimization. He argues that “the radar aimed at Israel looking to condemn it for every perceived violation of democratic correctness” is very sensitive to phenomena like right-wing calls for “political balance” in university faculties or demands for loyalty oaths from minority groups. Moreover, according to Sobol, the growing perception of anti-democratic trends in Israel has led to the paradoxical situation of Diaspora Jews sometimes playing a leading role in anti-Israel protests. “It is no accident that Jews are sometimes active in groups calling for boycotts on Israel. They are concerned at the possibility of people in their countries suddenly calling on minorities, like the Jews, to prove their loyalty,” he ventures.
Sobol is concerned by what he sees as an increasingly rampant right-wing intolerance and points to the recent example of Likud Knesset member Miri Regev calling for the removal of major Israeli poet Natan Zach from the school syllabus because he said he would be ready to sail in a flotilla to Gaza.
“Boycotting poets has the smell of burning books. It’s not far from that. It’s reminiscent of certain countries that spoke about “decadent art.” We are on the verge of crossing red lines here. People who don’t understand this don’t understand European history and don’t understand how things like this can happen in countries with a democratic tradition,” he asserts.
Sobol holds that the situation in Israel today is much graver than people think, precisely because groups like Im Tirtzu are operating within a supportive right-wing environment, giving them an influence on domestic policy out of all proportion to their size. “If the situation were reversed, and there were a majority for let’s call it ‘the liberal center,’ then such a group would be marginal and would not constitute any danger whatsoever. But in a situation where the right is getting stronger and more radical, a group like that almost points to the future nature of the regime in Israel. Therefore, I think the danger is enormous,” he concludes.
OTHERS ON THE LEFT SEE Sobol’s fears as greatly exaggerated. For example, Professor Mario Sznajder, head of the political science department at the Hebrew University, points out that the so-called McCarthyism in Israel is nothing like as severe as that in America during the Cold War, when it took on governmental forms, with hearings in the House Committee for un- American Activities and Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Committee on Government Operations.
“So far, in Israel, we are only dealing with relatively small movements that have sprung up from civil society and people aren’t being called up to testify before parliamentary commissions,” he tells The Report. Snajder, an expert on Fascism, is also skeptical about the possibility of Israel becoming authoritarian. He argues that although nothing in Israeli political culture or Jewish history, including the Holocaust, immunizes the Jewish state from authoritarian tendencies, the possibilities of totalitarianism or fascism in today’s global village are much smaller than in the 1920s and 1930s – largely because of the huge technological advances in the world, such as, for example, the revolution in information technology, which propel towards more open societies and more pluralistic forms of government.
“Look at countries like China and Cuba, remnants of the totalitarian world. Can they stop the Internet? So why should we think that in a world in which the structural tendency is towards pluralism that a monistic fascism can be imposed?” he asks rhetorically.
Sznajder, however, fully agrees with Sobol that a flourishing democracy is Israel’s strongest weapon against the would-be delegitimizers.
“The fact that Israel is a democracy very similar to those in the West evokes not only respect, but empathy.
The fact that the other side can appeal to the High Court of Justice, the plurality of opinion, the open debate, the critical nature of the local media: These things win admiration abroad. The right, which thinks it is fighting the delegitimizers, is actually playing into their hands,” he asserts.
What worries Sznajder most about the Im Tirtzu and the Institute for Zionist Strategy’s campaigns against “post-Zionism” in academe is what he sees as their total lack of understanding of what universities are all about. “Academic programs cannot be built along ideological lines and it doesn’t matter which ideology. If that were to be done, there would be no meaningful scientific research, only ideological debate. And universities do not exist to decide ideological debates,” he insists.
To limit or suffocate research in that way anywhere in the world would be self-defeating.
But, says Sznajder, in Israel’s case it would be totally absurd because one of the country’s greatest sources of added value is the excellence of its scientific research. By the same token, he says, it would be ridiculous to make academic appointments on ideological grounds.
“Imagine what would happen today, if they were to burn the limited number of places they have on ideological considerations. That would inevitably mean ignoring research excellence, bringing in less good people, and ultimately hurting the department and the university’s reputation. It would be cutting the branch on which they are sitting,” he observes.
And it is precisely because of the excellence of the universities that Sznajder believes they will not be interfered with, despite the campaigns against their alleged post-Zionism. “There are people on the right and on the left intelligent enough to understand that there are lines that should not be crossed. In Israel, the scientific capability and qualitative advantages so vital in a situation of conflict will remain equally vital once the conflict is resolved. Because if there is nothing special in this country, why would people want to stay or come here?” In other words, in Sznajder’s view, the excellence of academic research in Israel is an expression of the humanist, universalist strain of Zionism, and could attract Jews from all over the world. And it could also help Israel in its battle for an eminent place among the nations.
“Let’s show all the people who would delegitimize us that we are exactly the opposite of what they argue: an open society, striving to promote rational and universal ideals. That’s how I have always understood Zionism and that’s how I understand it today,” Sznajder concludes.