Israel and Academic Freedom

August 31, 2009

Neve Gordon has no illusions about the ability of Palestinian terrorists to harm Israelis. In 1986, while serving as a paratrooper on Israel’s border with Lebanon, he suffered severe injuries from hand grenades and bullets.

These days, Gordon is under a very different kind of attack — one that he and other Israeli academics say endangers the state of academic freedom in their country. Gordon is the chair of politics at Ben-Gurion University. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Notre Dame and publishes widely in Israel and the United States — with much of his writing critical of his country’s government. Ten days ago, he published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in which he called Israel an “apartheid state” and called for an international boycott of Israel to push the creation of a Palestinian state.

Reaction was immediate and intense — donors (many of them American) threatened to stop giving to Ben-Gurion, Israeli political leaders lined up to condemn Gordon, and his university’s leaders expressed disgust with the piece, with comments suggesting he might want to work elsewhere. Gordon has tenure, which is Israel is roughly equivalent to what it is in the United States, and his university acknowledges that he can’t be fired over the op-ed.

But in a move that stunned and outraged many Israeli academics (including many who disagree with Gordon’s analysis), the university also said it was looking for legal ways to discipline him. Scholars like Gordon have long criticized Israel’s policies — from their home country, the United States and elsewhere — without being disciplined, so the reaction to this essay is seen as significant far beyond Gordon’s op-ed.

“The infliction of such sanctions is a declaration of war on freedom of speech and academic freedom. It will have very grave consequences for the Israeli academic community and will harm greatly its international reputation,” says a petition being circulated by professors at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv University and the University of Haifa.

In the United States, the Middle East Studies Association (which has in the past sent letters protesting the treatment of scholars in Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, among others) last week sent a letter to Ben-Gurion University, saying: “In refusing to reiterate the university”s obligation to protect Dr. Gordon”s professional and civil freedoms and in failing to clarify that it will not be blackmailed into suspending the freedoms of particular faculty members that some donors do not like, your administration has given a green light to those attacking him and in some cases threatening his physical safety.”

In interviews, both Gordon and his university’s president said that their views were being distorted — but they have very different views of the controversy and its implications.

Gordon and His Op-Ed

Gordon is currently on a trip to the United States, doing research for his next book (on homeland security issues) and preparing to speak later this week in Toronto at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. He said in an interview that he didn’t always believe in a boycott, and that he came to this view gradually, based on his research and his interactions with Palestinians.

“Growing up, I was never aware of the Palestinian narrative of these issues,” he said. But now he is. He came first to believe that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its objections to the creation of Palestinian state there and in Gaza were both morally wrong and destructive to Israel. This view shows up in his political writing and his scholarly work. His most recent book is Israel’s Occupation, published last year by the University of California Press.

The argument in the op-ed is about what to do about the occupation. Gordon writes that he has come to the view that the Israeli public will shift its views only if faced with tough outside pressure. “It is therefore clear to me that the only way to counter the apartheid trend in Israel is through massive international pressure. The words and condemnations from the Obama administration and the European Union have yielded no results, not even a settlement freeze, let alone a decision to withdraw from the occupied territories,” he writes.

Specifically, Gordon endorsed the Bilboa Initiative, which calls for a boycott conducted in a “gradual, sustainable manner that is sensitive to context and capacity.” Expanding on what this means in the interview, Gordon said that it would start with a boycott of products produced by Israeli entities in the West Bank, and might expand to companies that help with occupation, gradually growing to hit more of Israeli society, but with time for the sanctions to have an impact.

Boycotts are extremely sensitive in Israeli higher education because British and some American academics have been pushing for boycotts of Israel academe — a push that has been widely condemned by American academics as antithetical to academic freedom. Gordon said the boycott he supports is institutional, not individual, and that he would not support an action that cut off ties between individual academics. Gordon also noted that boycotts are a non-violent way to take a stand.

But he said it was reasonable to ask American and other academics (not at the first stage of the boycott, but eventually) to at the very least demand, for example, that conferences in Israel include some acknowledgment of the moral issues associated with governing Palestinians against their will.

Many boycott critics say that such actions would hold Israel to a higher standard than other countries because American academics, for example, regularly work in countries in the Middle East that deny basic rights to women, for example. But Gordon said he believes this ignores the ability of academics to turn down such work. He said he was recently invited to give a talk at a university in Kazakhstan, with a nice stipend, all expenses paid — and he turned it down based on the country’s political and human rights records. “The fact that someone offers you a fat check doesn’t mean you have to go there,” he said.

Gordon said he has not heard directly from his university’s senior administrators, but that he has been approached by faculty members who were urged to persuade him to consider quitting — which he has no intention of doing.

Ben-Gurion University has been “a wonderful academic home” for his work, Gordon said. He has worked there for 10 years and has “wonderful colleagues and students.” In the past, when his critical writings have come to the attention of donors or government officials, Gordon said that the response has always been what he would expect: University leaders said that they disagreed with him, but that Gordon spoke for himself and had the right to do so.

“The issue is not about whether they disagree with me,” he said. “One of the jobs of the university president is raising money, and she has to cater to the people that provide the money, so a strong letter of condemnation of my views would have been fine with me. But there’s a difference between saying you disagree with me, and threatening me.”

Until now, Gordon said, he would have said that academic freedom in Israel was strong (except for Israeli controls on West Bank higher education), but in his opinion something has changed. “I think the reaction from my university should be a red flag for people,” he said.

The Reaction

It didn’t take long for Gordon’s piece to attract an audience in the United States — particularly of those who are supporters of Israel. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the country’s consul-general in Los Angeles fired off a memo to the university saying: “Since the article was published, I’ve been contacted by people who care for Israel; some of them are benefactors of Ben-Gurion University…. They were unanimous in threatening to withhold their donations to your institution. My attempt to explain that one bad apple would affect hundreds of researchers turned out to be futile.”

Israel’s education minister, Gideon Sa’ar, called the Gordon article “repugnant and deplorable.”

But amid all the condemnations were also statements from university leaders suggesting that Gordon should look for another job and might face sanctions for what wrote. Rivka Carmi, president of the university, gave a statement to Israeli journalists in which she said: “This vile and audacious criticism of the state of Israel damages the excellent academic work being done in Israel and its universities…. Academics with such feelings about their country are welcome to look for another home, whether personal or professional.”

Amos Drory, vice president for external affairs of the university, sent out e-mail messages to complaining donors in which he said: “While the university recognizes the importance of the principle of academic freedom, it feels that Gordon’s call for a boycott will cause direct harm to BGU — and all Israeli universities — and to Israeli society as a whole. The university is currently exploring the legal options available to take disciplinary action.”

Carmi, in an interview, insisted that the controversy and the university’s response did not endanger professors’ rights.

“I have to make it very clear that this is not about academic freedom,” she said. “The freedom to research, to teach, to debate on issues within the framework of academia” is protected, she said. But Gordon “created a new reality” when he published his views, with his university identification.

“Hundreds and hundreds” of people have sent her e-mails, not only expressing outrage at Gordon’s views, but with many of them saying they believed his views represented those of the university.

Asked about Gordon’s strong reputation as a researcher and teacher, Carmi said that — since she is a medical researcher and he is a political scientist — she wasn’t in a position to judge.

She said that she agreed that the tenure system would make it impossible to fire Gordon, but said that she didn’t view the possibility of disciplinary action as violating the principles of academic freedom. She stressed that an academic boycott of Israel universities would hurt those institutions, and that a broader boycott of the country would similarly do so.

“This is the first time we are encountering such a situation so we are looking into something that has never happened before, but this is going to affect the university,” she said.

Repeating her view that this dispute isn’t about academic freedom, she said the real question is: “If somebody damages or hurts the university in a certain way, what does it mean?”

– Scott Jaschik

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