The Israeli academic Left and the Im Tirtzu movement

Calling Im Tirtzu's collection of objectionable academics a “blacklist,” with all the historical associations involved is ludicrous.

Hebrew University, Jerusalem_311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Hebrew University, Jerusalem_311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
I have often been reminded of Marx’s famous dictum that history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce.
In the academic world to which I belong the latest examples of “history as farce” are recent attempts by some of my colleagues on the Israeli (radical/anti-/post-) Zionist Left to create a new bogeyman that they then claim is persecuting them and poses a dire threat to the freedom of Israeli society, if not to Western civilization.
I am referring to the recent comical attempts to depict all those who challenge this movement’s growing strength in the academic world as the heirs to the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, in particular the mainstream Im Tirtzu student movement and its purported “blacklist.”
I am not disputing the claim that Im Tirtzu compiles lists of academics who write and teach against the Zionist Idea (or Israel as a Jewish State) and even goes so far as to criticize some of them publicly. Im Tirtzu occasionally even calls for the ouster of an academic whose salary comes mostly from the government but still calls for international boycotts of Israel, and even of its universities of which he/she is a member.
But calling this a “blacklist,” with all the historical associations involved is, well, ludicrous.
Any list without real political and economic clout behind it is not even a pale imitation of the one compiled by the House for Un-American Activities Committee in the United States in the 1950s.
Many professionals, particularly in the entertainment industry but including also those in the academic community, whose names made their way to the Committee’s list as Communist Party members or even sympathizers, were fired and blackballed from attaining any other job.
Many careers were destroyed, families suffered greatly and paranoia in certain sectors of American society prevailed for a while (though McCarthy even in his heyday suffered no shortage of prominent detractors).
But yesterday’s tragedy becomes today’s farce; I know of no academic criticized by Im Tirtzu who has lost his/her job as a result, or whose academic career was jeopardized. In fact, I can testify as an academic insider that Im Tirtzu’s claims that in a number of academic departments in the social sciences holding far-left (or “post” Zionistic) positions actually gives one an edge , and certainly helps in the promotion process, are true.
It is much easier to publish ideological, anti-Israel articles than more nuanced ones, not only in the popular press but also in second- rate academic journals. Moreover, there really is a strong group of anti-Israel academics out there in the world who are more than happy to write letters of recommendation for fellow travelers in the Israeli academic community, and over the years I have had occasion to read such letters.
The case of a faculty colleague of mine who is most prominently featured on Im Tirzu’s “blacklist” is a case in point. Since writing his (in)famous column in a prominent American newspaper calling for an academic boycott of Israel his fortunes have certainly taken an interesting turn, far different than that which one would have expected listening to the lament of the radical Left.
He has – rightfully – been promoted to associate professor on the basis of his academic record, his extracurricular political activities – properly – ignored by all the university committees dealing with his promotion. He has been elected by his peers to one of the most important committees in the faculty, and has been appointed faculty chair and financial czar by the dean.
Calls for his dismissal by those outside the university are dismissed as ludicrous, and certainly counterproductive, by all those in the academic community (this writer included) and border on virtual zero, the political grandstanding of some right-wing politicians notwithstanding.
In short, we are witnessing an exceptional form of “martyrdom” for the cause, a point not lost on any of us in the academic world.
Let me add that the odds that the ideologically far-left oriented department to which he belongs, Politics and Government, will be closed are also virtually nil, despite the scathing academic report it has earned from a very prominent academic committee appointed by the Israeli Council for Higher Education to examine all political science departments in the country.
In fact, the department has grown in student popularity as a result of the report, will almost definitely grow in number of positions (to meet the academic demands of the report) and, if history is any guide, the new appointments will share similar ideological outlooks to those of the older members of the department.
So much for Im Tirtzu’s “blacklist.” Small wonder that some of my colleagues are currently signing up on Facebook to try to add their names to such a list.
Meanwhile those belonging to the Israeli (radical/anti-/post-) Zionist Left continue to proclaim their ideological views to their heart’s content in the mainstream Israeli media (not to say Western media), while lambasting non-existent attempts to curtail their “free speech” whenever they are criticized.
So why all this posturing? Why the need to depict oneself as the victim of an imaginary government crackdown? Is it, perhaps, a result of the mounting pressure to change entrenched old habits, such as avoiding hiring those not of their camp, of teaching classes and organizing academic conferences where even mainstream Zionist views receive very little if any voice, all under the banner of “critical” thought and academic freedom? This leads us to wonder whether there really are blacklists, and if so who their real victims are; who is really trying to silence whom.
So to all my colleagues on the radical Left who complain about threats to free speech and attempts to curtail academic freedom I can only remind you of the immortal words of the American comic strip Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
The writer is a professor in the Department of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev as well as the chair of the Goldstein Goren International Center for Jewish Thought at the university.