Academics and the public discourse

Many argue that academics should remain solely as the creators of knowledge and not take part in political debates.

The International Geographical Union is holding its biannual regional conference in Tel Aviv this week. A bit like the World Cup, the international venues for these major academic and scientific events are chosen years in advance, and it takes the local associations years of hard work and organization to put the meetings in place. Different countries and regions lobby to have the event take place in their own backyards, drawing on the expertise and international recognition of scholars in the field to put forward their claim.
In the case of Israel, the proponents also had to deal with those who did not want to come here, for a mixture of security and political reasons. There were groups who attempted to boycott the event and the pre-conference workshops and tried to persuade their colleagues not to attend. But with few exceptions, they were unsuccessful and, as a result, hundreds of geographers, planners and environmentalists are gathering in Tel Aviv this week for their conference, workshops and field trips.
Ask a child at school which are his/her most boring subjects and, invariably, they will choose geography, history and archeology. And yet, in countries such as Israel, where the national conflict and the competing claims to territory, land ownership and sovereignty are central to the daily discourse, there is nothing more relevant to political life than these three disciplines.
Geography is about who controls land, how settlements are planned and constructed and where and how are the state borders demarcated and delimited.
History is about the study of the competing and alternative narratives and claims to sovereignty, each using its own – often exclusive – histories and texts to strengthen its political claims. Archeology is often about the respective desires to prove that “my” group was here first, that “we” have priority in our claims to the land and that the discovered artifacts or bones at dig sites are part of ancient Jewish or Palestinian tradition (when in most cases they are neither).
IT IS not therefore surprising that when the archeologist Albert Glock died under mysterious circumstances some 20 years ago, Palestinian groups argued that he had secretly been murdered by the Mossad because of his claims to Palestinian antiquity, or that when Arab geographer Ghazi Falah, a graduate of the Hebrew University, began to discuss alternative narratives about Arab and Beduin land rights in Israel, (in the 1980s – long before it became acceptable to discuss the rights of the other side), he was shunned by the Israeli geographical community and had to seek employment in North America.
At a later point he was even arrested by state authorities on one of his visits to Israel to see his family, kept in detention for almost a month, before he was released without any charges being filed against him. And for what? For being a geographer who offered an alternative explanation to that of the establishment geographic community in a country where matters pertaining to land control, planning and territorial claims are central to our understanding of the ongoing conflict.
Many argue that academics should remain solely as the creators of knowledge and should not use their expertise to take part in the public discourse or political debate, because they have to remain “neutral” or “objective,” But there is no such thing as total objectivity in the social sciences, while remaining entirely outside the public debate would be a betrayal of our role as social scientists. It is insufficient simply to be the technicians who collect and collate data. We are required to use our knowledge to contribute toward the social and political agendas of the day.
Of course, a knowledge-based discourse must be balanced, not one-sided and certainly not polemical – that is for the politicians. But the data and information that we create must be used to enrich and educate the public debate. And if such information throws up alternative and competing understandings of reality, as a society which places great value on education and knowledge, we have to be able to grapple with these facts, rather than shun them because they don’t suit our own exclusive political understandings of what is right and what is wrong.
Academics and scientists living outside Israel who want to become involved in our political discourse need to discover the facts and the data for themselves before taking a stand which either blindly supports Israel in everything it does, or alternately promotes boycotts of entire national communities. They need to see, meet and hear both Israeli and Palestinian academics discuss their own research projects and how they contribute to alternative understandings of a complex reality, in which there is no single truth or exclusive claim to land.
ONE OF the organizations which contributes a great deal to this form of knowledge based understanding is the Academic Study Group operating out of the UK.
Working over almost three decades on a shoestring budget (largely because it insists on retaining its academic independence and its scientific neutrality), it brings groups of British and Israeli scholars together for weeklong symposia and research workshops. They share their research findings and create joint research agendas. As a by-product, they learn from each other, and about each other, reaching a more balanced understanding of the respective rights and wrongs of the political situation. Politics does not frame their dialogue or cooperation, but the meeting between scholars holding different views obviously enriches their mutual understandings of just where the “other” is coming from.
The hundreds of international geographers who are here this week will hold diverse views about the situation. They have not come here out of a particular like or dislike of Israel but as part of an international community of scholars who want to meet their Israeli colleagues and to mutually enrich their knowledge and understanding of our complex reality – of how human spaces and territories are formed and contested.
It is unfortunate that the hosting organization is only the Israel Geographical Association rather than a combined effort of the Israeli and Palestinian geographical associations. It is also unfortunate that, apart from the field trips organized by the political geography workshop, most participants will not get to see the realities of what is happening in the West Bank, or among the Beduin communities in the Negev. There is still much to put right in the way that we, as an Israeli academic community, become more inclusive and provide a forum for alternative narratives. But we can also be proud of the fact that we are hosting such a large group of international scholars and will hope that they will return home with a better sense of the complex realities which this region has to deal with on a daily basis.
The writer is professor of political geography at Ben- Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.