Is it only McCarthyism?

What we are experiencing here in Israel with regard to the attack on academia and civil society may resemble more the Soviet Union than America of the ’50s.

Many are using the label of McCarthyism to warn about the present onslaught on academics, human rights groups and others in Israeli society, and there are indeed many similarities. In the US of the early 1950s, as the Cold War was gaining steam, fear of communism triggered a witch-hunt of alleged sympathizers in academia, the arts and other walks of life beyond (though including) the political realm. The argument was that such elements might poison the minds of Americans with anti-American ideas.
There is indeed an element of McCarthyism in the attacks on civil society groups such as the New Israel Fund, but actually what we are experiencing may resemble more the Soviet Union than America of the ’50s. In the Soviet system, Marxism- Leninism, an ideology, was not only a required subject in every area of education but was the essential criterion for research and teaching at the universities. The top administrator, guided by the party representative, was responsible to the state for the Marxist nature of reading lists and lectures, hiring and firing according to Marxist credentials.
One might argue that Marxism (unlike Zionism) is in fact a worldview that deals explicitly with the nature of society – economics and politics – though in the Soviet Union this ideological criterion was applied to the arts and natural sciences as well. Unlike McCarthyism, this was done not (or not only) out of fear of the enemy’s ideas but out of a wish to impose a totally exclusive view, barring any ideological challenge or diversity. And, of course, under McCarthyism people were “only” fired and their lives were often shattered, while in the Soviet Union they were arrested and worse.
WE HAVE reached neither situation here, yet the similarity – and concern – lies in the matter of demanding uniformity based on “Zionism.” Why or how can Zionism be the criterion for what we teach or do? In academia, for example, what does Zionism have to do with general principles of sociology, with Aristotle and Plato, with statistics, with social systems? And one might ask: What Zionism? There was Zionism before political Zionism came along; there are different streams of Zionism, there are many interpretations and applications, particularly after the state was created. But most of all, one must ask why one’s view of Zionism – or any other ideology or national inclination – needs to be a criterion for the pursuit of knowledge.
In fact, however, there is a great deal of hypocrisy also at play. After all, the State of Israel supports educational systems run by movements and communities that in some cases explicitly reject Zionism. And that is indeed what one would expect of a democratic system. One wonders, then, why has this witch-hunt begun against academia and civil society? One explanation may be that it is a reaction to the increasing criticism and delegitimization of Israel from outside, causing a drawing in of ourselves, xenophobia and fundamentalism that demand, as in McCarthyism, clear signs of loyalty lest the enemy gain from our weakness. It could, however, be something else, as in the Soviet Union perhaps, and that is a confidence and mania that comes from power.
Here we have a right-wing government with an extremely strong majority in the Knesset, able finally to impose its views. It may be far from employing the extremist means chosen by the Soviet leaders or even those of the McCarthyites – we hope – but there are alarming signs of efforts to suppress opposition and criticism, seriously challenging pluralism and democracy, to ensure one political version of what must be brought into the classroom or, perhaps, later the media?
The writer is former head of the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is currently professor of Government at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. This article first appeared in Maariv.