Patriotism Is Not a Criterion

The Report interviews Pr Dan Avnon about the recent Im Tirzu controversy.

ISRAEL’S ACADEMIC INSTITUTIONS HAVE COME UNDER attack by organizations claiming to represent the best interests of Israel and its Jewish majority. The president of Tel Aviv University has acknowledged that he is conducting an examination of the syllabi of courses taught in the sociology department to determine if they are “balanced” and not overly “post-Zionist,” pursuant to accusations by the Institute for Zionist Strategy, a think tank that describes itself as “an organization created to ensure the continuation of the State of Israel as both a Jewish and a viable democratic State, including “liberating public discourse in Israeli society from the selfimposed constraints of the prevalent dogma and internalized notions of the politically correct.” Similarly, the nationalist student group, Im Tirzu, has threatened to chase away university donors unless changes were made to the Politics and Government Department of Ben-Gurion University which, the group claimed, is the “most left wing political science department in the country.”

Although he expressed reservations regarding the threats against funding, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, has said publicly that he supports these organizations and the attempts to make Israel’s universities more “patriotic.”

“The demands by the Institute for Zionist Strategy and Im Tirzu that the state employ scholars on the basis of their political ideas not only undermines the very roots of scientific enquiry – they are inherently fascist,” says professor Dan Avnon of the Hebrew University’s department of political science and head of the Federman School of Public Policy and Government.

“This is unacceptable.”
The Jerusalem Report: Why do you call these efforts unacceptable? Professor Dan Avnon: These organizations claim they are producing research, when in fact they are producing propaganda. They have taken the entire corpus of social science research over the past 50 years and reduced it to a ridiculous set of categories – pro-nationalist or anti-nationalist, modern or post-modern, which they then equate with pro-Zionist or anti-Zionist.
These organizations claim that academic work should be judged according to the political majority of students sitting in their classroom. The Institute for Zionist Strategy wrote in its so-called “draft of research report” that those lecturers whom they have labeled anti- or post-Zionist would not pass the threshold into the next elections into the Knesset. So what?! University research faculty are not running for office.
Organizations like Im Tirzu want to impose nationalism and patriotism as criteria for evaluation of research and for employment This happens only in fascist regimes.
How, then, should scholars and scholarship be assessed? Solely on the basis of excellence of research, from a perspective of accepted international standards of scientific review and not according to contemporary political ideologies. Scholarship must be based on data and rooted in a methodology.
That way, it can be supported or refuted. Or, if the scholarship is normative rather than empirical, it should be assessed according to the body of knowledge or data that informs its work, to its clarity of thought and its immanent logic. Scholarship is worthy if it can be examined and subjected to scientific criteria. And good scholarship, because it asks new, sometimes troubling, questions, is always on the edge.
Yet there are international fashions and fads in scholarship, so “excellence” cannot be objectively assessed. True, in social science, there are definitely winds that reflect the Zeitgeist of that period. Certain ideas capture the imagination of social scientists and they influence their research. If such ideas prove to be scientifically valid, if the insights they bring are worthwhile – the ideas will stand the test of time. If not, they will quickly be exposed as a fleeting fad. Science grows through conjecture and refutation.
Is the current Zeitgeist anti-nationalist and therefore anti-Zionist? The nation state came into being in the 20th century. Yet even as the nation states were forming, their underlying unitary logic was being undercut by the cataclysms of the world wars, the mass migrations of millions of human beings and the other upheavals that the world has faced. This means that the idea of a unitary nation state is challenged by empirical reality, by the tremendous heterogeneity of contemporary societies. Israel was founded like scores of other states at that time, as a nation state. Scholars all over the world are asking whether this category is relevant to the facts of social composition, or an outdated remnant of the European origins of the “nation state.” It is in this developmental and comparative context that international scholarship evaluates Israel in the category known as the nation state. This, contrary to the contentions of these organizations, has nothing to do with Zionism or anti- Zionism.
What about the contention that other, less popular, ideas are underrepresented? There may in fact be a problem of underrepresentation of scholars who belong to certain categories – there are more men than women, for example, or more Jews than Arabs. If someone feels at a disadvantage because of their background, they should fight against this through scientific excellence, not political advocacy. If someone with a certain political view or a particular demographic is rejected by a university even though he or she meets the international standards for excellence in research – I will be the first to defend him or her.
Aren’t there standards of what must be taught, so that students will be literate in their disciplines of study? Universities and their departments must discuss the basic core, required courses, in order to guarantee that the syllabi of these courses provide the students with the proper spread of the basics of their discipline and cutting-edge new ideas. This, however, is not based on political correctness; it stems from a real commitment to provide the students with the best ideas in their fields – those that have stood the test of time and comparative science and those that are new and exciting.
It would appear that the ideas promoted by Im Tirzu and the Institute for Zionist Strategy are gaining popular support. There is an orchestrated strategy to reframe public discourse in Israel. It is no coincidence that these various efforts are all coming at the same time. These are propagandists, and good propaganda touches raw nerves and sensibilities, providing simplistic single answers to a complex, chaotic world. Today’s world is complex and frightening, and the most effective way to disregard complexity is to create simple categories of good and bad, and to find a culprit to blame. This may feel comforting to some, just as blaming the Jews for the world’s problems was comforting to others.
But if the universities, where we teach complexity, are brought to this shallow place, then they will become as shoddy as the political arena. All who care about Israel’s civic and scientific culture should be very worried.
It is now the Hebrew month of Elul, the month of slichot, of repentence.
For the sake of a narrow political agenda, organizations such as Im Tirzu are willing to destroy a wonderful Zionist enterprise – Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, with its hundreds of faculty and thousands of students. They are willing to knock it down by threatening to go after the university’s funding if the university does not accept their political dictates. This is dangerous and reprehensible.