What is happening to our freedom of speech?

The academic community here is showing signs of growing intolerance and attempts to deny the free and open debate which is such an integral part of the university milieu.

ben gurion university building 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ben gurion university building 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Forty scholars of geopolitics from around the world will land here today to take part in a weeklong seminar, accompanied by professional field trips, to discuss and analyze the changing nature of borders, territory and conflict in a globalizing world.
The conference will take place at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. Following this meeting, many of the participants will remain in Israel to take part in an even larger academic event, the regional biannual meeting of the International Geographical Union (IGU) which will take place in Tel Aviv next week.
It is not easy, these days, holding large international scientific events here. While hundreds of participants are expected next week, the number would have been even larger if there was not a reticence to come here on the part of many scholars. For many, they have a false sense of their safety and insecurity, convinced that this is a dangerous place to come to, while for a few, they will not come as part of a protest against Israel’s policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians, part of a small, but silent, boycott of the country and its academic institutions.
Notwithstanding, the decision by the IGU to hold its meeting here is itself indicative of the fact that most academic institutions make a necessary distinction between political critique and scientific scholarship.
There will be many participants who are critical of Israel’s policies and will, no doubt, make these positions known to their Israeli colleagues during the course of their stay, but who understand that collective boycotting is not only unethical but, at the end of the day, it achieves absolutely nothing other than creating an even greater degree of intransigence (especially among those who pathologically believe that the “whole world is automatically against us”) as well as preventing Israeli-Palestinian dialogue from taking place in one of the few remaining places where it exists – inside the walls of the academic community.
FOR ITS part, the academic community here is showing signs of growing intolerance and attempts to deny the free and open debate which is such an integral part of the university milieu. The inboxes of hundreds of university faculty, especially in the social sciences, have been filled – ad nauseam – recently with discussions and confrontations concerning the limits of academic freedom. The right-wing attacks on those who would be critical of government policy have become stronger than ever before, and many left-wing academics and research NGOs have been targeted by those – such as Isracampus, Im Tirtzu and NGO Monitor – who have taken on a self-appointed role of superpatriots, defenders of the national cause and the sole interpreters of what it is to be a Zionist.
This has not been helped by the fact that even the minister of education has, without checking the facts of a largely erroneous report, given support to these critics, or that the Foreign Ministry has actively promoted the harmful NGO report in meetings with members of the European Parliament in Brussels – severely damaging the country’s image as a free and open society in the eyes of many European lawmakers. The discussion of these “facts” in Knesset committees, without any attempt to verify the information, reflects poorly on the professionalism of our legislative bodies. A letter protesting this blatant politicization of the freedom of speech has been signed by more than 500 faculty from all of the country’s academic institutes, with views ranging across the political spectrum from Right to Left, and is to be presented to Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar later this week.
And the letter signed yesterday by such senior public figures as former education and justice minister Amnon Rubinstein, former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, former education minister Yossi Sarid protesting the onesided actions of the police against demonstrators in Sheikh Jarrah, not because of any illegal actions on their part but because of the political views expressed at the legally held demonstrations, is yet another alarm bell which is being sounded in this respect.
Even more disturbing is the fact that some university managements have failed to adequately protect their own faculty members when they are faced with threats and abuse, some of them by their own Board of Governors members, many of whom live abroad and think that they can dictate university policy from afar based on their personal likes and dislikes of the views of faculty members. These same people would never dare to utter such comments or send such e-mails to university faculty in their country of residence, if only because they would be accused of being antidemocratic, closing down on free speech and, in some cases, could face criminal prosecution for the issuing of hate and even death threats through their actions.
It is this sort of action on the part of our “friends” which causes our universities much greater damage than all of the failed attempts to implement mass boycotts and undertake collective action, most of which can be measured in terms of hot air rather than any form of significant implementation. The freedom to debate, to state one’s opinions – however obnoxious they may seem to others – is paramount to any free and open society, and all the attempts to clamp down on this and to close down the debate, be it through the attempt to deny tenure or promotion to academic faculty, or the prevention of research organizations to raise funding from bona fide international agencies because of their suspected political leanings, places us among the group of countries with which we would never wish to be associated.
ONE OF the few university heads to have had the courage to make a statement to this effect is the rector of the University of Haifa, Prof. Yossi Ben-Artzi. One of the founding activists of Peace Now in its formative years, he has equally come out strongly against the post-Zionist critique of Israel and roundly condemned those Israeli academics who promote an anti-Israel boycott. But he has come to their defense, not because of their views, but because of the clear dangers he sees in allowing this form of brute verbal force, aimed at disengaging them from the debate, to continue unchallenged.
Ben-Artzi will also be hosting many of our professional colleagues from the international geographical community, who are arriving for the IGU meetings, over the next two weeks. It is important for our guests, regardless of whatever criticisms that some of them may have concerning Israeli and Palestinian national politics, to see the vibrancy, openness and diversity of opinion on the campus and in the street. And for this continue to be the case, we must stand up against all those who would wish to impose their own narrow, unquestioning, world view on the rest of us, and who would pretend that they are more loyal citizens of the state than those with whom they disagree. It is a challenge for democracy and we cannot remain silent.
The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.