Into the Fray: A giant pall of shame

Israeli academe will have much to answer for to future generations, both for what it has done and what it hasn’t.

Israeli lecture hall (photo credit: Adrian Korsner, Sound Images Photography)
Israeli lecture hall
(photo credit: Adrian Korsner, Sound Images Photography)
"Kindly remove me from your mailing list; I have no patience for your tiresome, hackneyed, outdated rantings”  –An e-mail from Prof. David Shulman, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, after receiving my last opinion column, “Reassessing root causes and red herrings.”
Barely a week after the Technion’s Dan Shechtman was awarded the Nobel prize in Chemistry, the sixth Israeli laureate in 10 years, would appear inauspicious timing for a caustic rebuke of Israeli academe.
But although the nation’s institutes of higher learning can indeed point to an impressive accumulation of accomplishments, it has a much darker side as well, which can no longer be ignored.
True, much of the intellectual output of Israel’s universities has contributed immensely to the bolstering the country — both in terms of physical security and international stature. Lamentably, this is not the whole picture.
Detrimental, dysfunctional... disloyal?
One of the gravest challenges facing Israel today is the international assault on its legitimacy. Much of this assault is being precipitated — certainly facilitated and exacerbated — by prominent figures within the Israeli academe.
Some of this is a result of purposeful intent on the part of self-professed post- /anti-Zionist faculty members, some the result of misguided mindlessness on the part of purported Zionist ones. But whatever the motivation, the time has come to illuminate these dark corners and drive out the lengthening shadow of disgrace.
For an increasingly visible, vocal and vitriolic sector among Israeli academics is playing an influential role in the public discourse on the Arab-Israeli conflict that can only be defined as detrimental, dysfunctional and, regrettably, at times disloyal.
Motivated mainly by fear of donor desertion, university authorities have attempted to downplay the scope of the phenomenon – trying to dismiss it as marginal in influence and negligible in size.
This is a manifest misrepresentation of the facts.
Although it is true that this malaise does not affect — or is that infect? — large swathes of Israel’s academic community, and that it is mainly prevalent in the faculties of social sciences and humanities (including law), this does not accurately reflect the extent of its pernicious impact.
For it is in these faculties that the nation’s politicians, journalists, pollsters, political advisers and analysts are to a large degree molded. It is here that the cognitive filters and frames-of-reference that influence political analysis and decision-making are forged.
It is here that norms regarding the politically “permissible” and “prohibited” are lain down, and the concepts demarcating the limits of “legitimacy” drawn up.
The tyranny of intellectual orthodoxy
Clearly then, scholars in these faculties have far more impact on the public discourse — at least as it impinges on the Arab-Israeli conflict — than their colleagues in zoology, botany or microbiology.
Moreover, by the nature of their activities, they interface with much greater frequency freedom and familiarity with the mainstream media outlets, both national and international.
Indeed, on the national level, many mainstream media personalities are products of Israel’s social science/humanities faculties.
Sadly, since the mid-’80s, a growing phenomenon of intellectual orthodoxy has enveloped these faculties.
It is not that a rigid uniformity is imposed on research agendas or teaching programs, but rather that certain perspectives are entirely excluded from them. This is not the result of a directive from any official university organ, but a de facto custom applied almost without exception across the entire academic landscape.
No heretical departure is brooked from this never-mentioned but universally implemented stricture. Prohibition of divergence from orthodoxy is meticulously maintained. This requires that facts be distorted, truth suppressed, dissent silenced and dissenters ridiculed.
Thus no approach that challenges the validity of the Palestinian narrative or questions the wisdom of Palestinian statehood has been raised in any serious fashion, or in any serious forum, within mainstream academia. There is no significant discussion of the consequences of territorial withdrawal, of the prudence of political concessions or of any alternative paradigm for the future of Israel as the nation-state of Jewish people, other than the two-state model — unless of course you count the post-/anti-Zionist un-Jewish state-of all- its-citizens.
Indeed, the two-state principle has become the holy grail of academic discourse and acquired almost the status of the Law of Gravity.
Thus any line of inquiry that might undermine the perception of both its inevitability and/or desirability must be barred at all cost. Any evidence — no matter how compelling or well-documented — that might, for example, suggest a lack of sincerity on the part of the Palestinians, cast doubt as to the nature of their true intentions or their real motivation, or raise suspicions as the authenticity of the demands, must be studiously ignored or immediately denigrated as inadmissibly flawed.
Which brings us to Prof. Shulman’s demand to be removed from my mailing list.
Archetypical arrogance
Of course Prof. Shulman is entitled to be spared any e-mails from me. For that a simple “Please remove me from your mailing list” would suffice. But the good professor felt obliged to supplement his request with a “scholarly critique” of my most recent column, couched in “erudite eloquence.”
The arrogant invective that Shulman felt appropriate to resort to is typical of the attitude I described above.
As readers will remember, my previous column largely consisted of citations and analyses of Palestinian/Arab declarations and documents, which seem to indicate that a plausible case can be made that the origins of Arab enmity towards a Jewish state are not territorial, but existential.
And while some of the passages quoted might aptly be characterized as “rants” they are Arab/Palestinian rants, not mine.
Neither would Shulman’s epithets “outdated” or “hackneyed” appear fitting.
Indeed, the documents cited are still valid and the declarations of intent are continuously corroborated — most recently by Fatah central committee member Abbas Zaki in his yet-to-be-repudiated proclamation on Al Jazeera (September 23) that the Palestinians’ real goal is to “to wipe out Israel, and his yet-to-be-retracted characterization of Netanyahu and Obama as “dirtbags.” (Now there’s a full-blooded rant for you.) Nor was this an isolated outburst. Indeed it reflects precisely the sentiments of Nabil Sha’ath, head of Fatah’s foreign relations, on ANB-TV (July 13), in which he asserted that “We will never accept... [t]he story of ‘two states for two peoples’... The ‘Jewish state’... is also unacceptable to us.”
Then there was Saeb Erekat, the recently resigned chief Palestinian negotiator who wrote in The Guardian (December 10, 2010) that “Disregarding aspirations... [of] Palestinian refugees... more than 7 million people... to return to their homeland, would certainly make any peace deal signed with Israel completely untenable.”
These rejectionist positions are articulated by senior representatives of the allegedly pragmatic Fatah movement — not by any extreme Islamist radical.
It is difficult to resist the urge to urge the good professor to wake and smell the coffee.
Impaired intellectual output
The intolerance of the (intellectual) “other” by those who habitually preach tolerance of the “other,” has dramatically impaired the quality of the intellectual output of Israeli academe regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict, particularly toward the Palestinian component of it.
This has rendered the academe incapable of — or unwilling to – evaluate or predict with any precision, events and processes of crucial importance to the nation. It has certainly rendered any of its input into the national decision-making process highly suspect, if not hopelessly misleading.
What could illustrate this more vividly than the academe's assessment of the Oslo process? When this “process” began, it received warm, almost wall-to-wall endorsement from the experts in the nation’s universities.
Policy papers were written, research conducted, articles published, public declarations of support signed, all expressing professional optimism as to the rosy prospects this bold new vision heralded for the region.
There was hardly a dissenting voice.
Beyond the confines of the ivory tower, however, many expressed their concern, warning that the “noble vision” was in fact a dangerous fantasy. Then came bitter reality, and alas, the assessments of the greengrocers, the cabdrivers, the market vendors proved far more reliable than forecasts of the academic experts and the learned scholars.
In the words of Prof. Efraim Karsh, head of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London: “Had such professional misconduct occurred in the natural or physical sciences there would have doubtless been serious consequences: e.g. the collapse of a bridge following phoney engineering calculations, dangerous side effects hidden during the development of a new medicine, etc. ...Yet it would seem that when it comes to the social sciences or the humanities...
the researcher can escape punishment for the worst kind of malpractice.”
Who could disagree? For in these disciplines it appears that advocacy of Palestinian statehood has become an overriding consideration to which all must be subordinated, including the conduct of intellectual inquiry and the norms of academic discourse.
Abuse of position and prestige
But it is not only what Israeli academics have failed to do that is of concern. What they have done is even more disturbing.
Many — some unwitting, others wittingly — have thrown their weight behind the burgeoning drive to delegitimize Israel internationally, particularly in intellectual circles across the globe.
Regrettably, frequent use — or rather abuse — is made of academic titles or positions to create an aura of authority on issues where none exists.
Take for example the good Prof. Shulman, who is listed at Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. On his website he details his areas of academic expertise as the history of religion in South India, poetry/poetics in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit; Dravidian linguistics; and Carnatic music, none of which appears to have any relevance for the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Yet making use of his academic credentials, he blogs regularly in The New York Review of Books, vilifying Israel and validating much of the vitriol of its detractors.
Thus almost immediately following the IDF interception of the Mavi Marama in its attempt to break the naval quarantine of Gaza, he applied his expertise in South Asian culture to the realm of maritime law and national security.
With dismissive disdain for the official Israel version, and seemingly suggesting that the serious wounds inflicted on the IDF commandos were no more than they deserved, he sneers: “Spokesmen for both the army and the government repeatedly said that the soldiers were in danger of being lynched — as if they were innocent victims of an ambush rather than, in effect, state-sponsored pirates attacking a convoy carrying humanitarian aid in international waters.”
This is merely a single example of a myriad of insidious misrepresentations of Israel and Israelis action by a myriad of Israeli academics, abusing the exercise of academic freedom.
After all, this freedom was intended principally to allow them unhindered pursuit of truth in their chosen fields of study, not for malicious misportrayal of their country and its policies.
Such examples are far too numerous to catalog in this essay, but some will be dealt with in future columns, for this is an issue that has far too long been neglected.
A giant pall of shame
Israeli academe will have much to answer for to future generations. For despite its long list of illustrious accomplishments, a giant pall of shame and disgrace is beginning to rise above it — shame for what it has done; guilt for what it has not. Watch this space of more on this topic.