The disrepute of Israeli intellectuals

Israeli intellectuals of yesteryear may have had differing political opinions, but they agreed on the fundamentals: that the Jews are a nation and deserve a state located in the historic homeland. Sadly, the actions of many modern Israeli intellectuals mark a departure from this view.

reading boycott 521 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
reading boycott 521
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
Writing in these pages last week, Emmanuel Navon dissected a lengthy lament by Israeli intellectuals that appeared in Haaretz earlier this month, in which they mourned “the decline in the intellectual’s public value” and sought to explain it. Some of their explanations were simply nonsensical: Far from needing to conform lest a “vengeful” public “hit him in the pocket,” for instance, the average tenured Israeli academic enjoys far more financial security than many great intellectuals of previous centuries. Others, like the claim that television’s sound-bite culture has reduced public interest in sustained intellectual argument, have some validity, but as Navon noted, these don’t explain why intellectuals in other countries (he cited France’s Bernard-Henri Levy as an example) do still seem to command public attention.
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Navon correctly identified one important factor that Haaretz’s interviewees studiously ignored: their disregard of reality. As he noted, mantras like “the occupation is the source of all evil” and “the advent of peace depends on Israel alone” might have seemed daring and intriguing two decades ago, but few Israelis find them even remotely persuasive now, after the Palestinians have rejected three separate offers of a state in virtually all the territories; after Israel’s serial withdrawals - from large parts of West Bank in 1994-95, from Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005 - produced not peace, but, respectively, the second intifada, the Second Lebanon War and years of rocket fire on southern Israel; and after even the most “moderate” Palestinians have repeatedly refused to recognize the Jewish state or give up their dream of destroying it demographically via a mass influx of Palestinian refugees.
But another issue may be even more important: the fact that too many modern Israeli intellectuals are no longer committed to the Zionist project.
The great Israeli intellectuals of yesteryear whose loss Haaretz mourned – S.Y. Agnon, Chaim Nahman Bialik, Uri Zvi Greenberg, Nathan Alterman – were all passionately devoted to the project of restoring and maintaining Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. They often disagreed vehemently about what policies the state should adopt, but they agreed on the fundamentals: that the Jews are a nation, that this nation deserves a state, that this state should be located in the Jews’ historic homeland. And they gave generously of their talents to advance and preserve the cause of Jewish sovereignty.
Contrast this with the intellectuals who complained so bitterly to Haaretz. Prof. Shlomo Sand of Tel Aviv University, for instance, is famous mainly for his book The Invention of the Jewish People, in which– defying millennia of Jewish texts, from the Bible onward, that posit a “nation of Israel”- he asserts that there is no “Jewish people” and proclaims the concept of Jewish peoplehood a 19th-century intellectual construct.
The obvious implication is that Jews have no right to national self-determination. He also argues, again contrary to traditional scholarship, that most Jews weren’t exiled by the Romans two millennia ago, but rather remained in the Land of Israel and subsequently converted to Islam, thus becoming the Palestinians’ progenitors. Modern-day Jews, he claims, are mainly descended from later converts. Again, the implication is that Palestinians have the only valid claim to this land, while Jews have no valid claim at all.
Prof. Moshe Zuckermann of the same university is on record as saying that Israel must let 250,000 to 400,000 Palestinians relocate inside its pre-1967 borders, as “an interim solution” en route to eliminating the independent Jewish state entirely(“since I’m neither a nationalist nor a statist”). He also actively promotes academic boycotts of Israel.
Prof. Ran HaCohen of Tel Aviv University similarly strives to undermine Israel’s legitimacy abroad. In a column on the site, for instance, he termed the security fence separating Israel from the West Bank, which sharply reduced Palestinian suicide bombings inside Israel, an “Apartheid Wall,” thereby implying that this non-lethal defensive measure is racist and illegitimate. In another column, he called the Jewish National Fund, established to legally purchase land in pre-state Israel, a “colonialist institution” – implying that Jews are colonialist interlopers with no rights in this land, not even the right to legally purchase land here.
Whether intentionally or not (HaCohen, for instance, claims to support a two-state solution), all these intellectuals are actively working to delegitimize the entire concept of Jewish sovereignty in this land, and hence to dismantle the world’s only Jewish state. Nor are they alone. Prof. Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University, for instance, demanded in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that Israel be boycotted as an “apartheid state.”
Prof. Moshe Zimmerman of Hebrew University routinely compares the Israel Defense Forces to the Waffen SS. A Hebrew University graduate student won a prize from an association of Israeli sociology professors for claiming that Israeli soldiers don’t rape Palestinians because they consider them subhuman. A Haifa University graduate student won top marks for a thesis accusing Israeli soldiers of massacring Arabs during the War of Independence; the veterans later proved in court that he fabricated the evidence. A Sapir College lecturer threw an IDF reservist in uniform out of his class; 40 colleagues promptly backed the lecturer. And the list could go on and on.
Moreover, these anti-Israel intellectuals receive wall-to-wall support from their Zionist colleagues, who insist that “academic freedom” means that nothing an academic does - even calling for boycotting the very university that pays your salary - can be deemed so egregious that ordinary Israelis shouldn’t be forced to subsidize its propagation with their taxes, which fund the bulk of university budgets.
This is the real reason Israeli intellectuals have fallen into disrepute. The many intellectuals who don’t share the public’s fundamental commitment to Jewish sovereignty obviously have little to say to it; their critiques are aimed not at achieving a shared goal, but at destroying all that most Israelis hold dear. And by backing their anti-Zionist colleagues so unreservedly, Zionist intellectuals have tarred themselves with the same brush. For whether fairly or not, most Israelis now see them as primarily committed not to any national interest, but to the defense of their own narrow guild.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.