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McCarthy in Israel

By Neve Gordon - posted Monday, 6 September 2010


On May 31, I joined some 50 students and faculty members who gathered outside Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to demonstrate against the Israeli military assault on the flotilla carrying humanitarian aid toward Gaza. In response, the next day a few hundred students marched towards the social-sciences building, Israeli flags in hand. Amid the nationalist songs and pro-government chants, there were also shouts demanding my resignation from the university faculty.

One student even proceeded to create a Facebook group whose sole goal is to have me sacked. So far more than 2,100 people (many of them non-students) have joined. In addition to death wishes and declarations that I should be exiled, the site includes a call on students to spy on me during class. "We believe," ends a message written to the group, "that if we conduct serious and profound work, we can, with the help of each and every one of you, gather enough material to influence ... Neve Gordon's status at the university, and maybe even bring about his dismissal."

Such personal attacks are part of a much broader assault on Israeli higher education and its professors. Two recent incidents exemplify the protofascist logic that is being deployed to undermine the pillars of academic freedom in Israel, while also revealing that the assault on Israeli academe is being backed by neoconservative forces in the United States.

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The first incident involves a report published by the Institute for Zionist Strategies, in Israel, which analysed course syllabi in Israeli sociology departments and accused professors of a "post-Zionist" bias. The institute defines post-Zionism as "the pretense to undermine the foundations of the Zionist ethos and an affinity with the radical leftist stream". In addition to the usual Israeli leftist suspects, intellectuals like Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm also figure as post-Zionists in the report.

The institute sent the report to the Israel Council for Higher Education, which is the statutory body responsible for Israeli universities, and the council, in turn, sent it to all of the university presidents. Joseph Klafter, president of Tel-Aviv University, actually asked several professors to hand over their syllabi for his perusal, though he later asserted that he had no intention of policing faculty members and was appalled by the report.

A few days later, the top headline of the Israeli daily Haaretz revealed that another right-wing organization, Im Tirtzu (If You Will It), had threatened Ben-Gurion University, where I am a professor and a former chair of the government and politics department. Im Tirtzu told the university's president, Rivka Carmi, that it would persuade donors to place funds in escrow unless the university took steps "to put an end to the anti-Zionist tilt" in its politics and government department. The organisation demanded a change "in the makeup of the department's faculty and the content of its syllabi," giving the president a month to meet its ultimatum. This time my head was not the only one it wanted.

President Carmi immediately asserted that Im Tirtzu's demands were a serious threat to academic freedom. However, Minister of Education Gideon Sa'ar, who is also chairman of the Council for Higher Education, restricted his response to a cursory statement that any move aimed at harming donations to universities must be stopped. Mr Sa'ar's response was disturbingly predictable. Only a few months earlier, he had spoken at an Im Tirtzu gathering, following its publication of a report about the so-called leftist slant of syllabi in Israeli political-science departments. At the gathering, he asserted that even though he had not read the report, its conclusions would be taken very seriously.

Although the recent scuffle seems to be about academic freedom, the assault on the Israeli academe is actually part of a much wider offensive against liberal values. Numerous forces in Israel are mobilising in order to press forward an extreme-right political agenda.

They have chosen the universities as their prime target for two main reasons. First, even though Israeli universities as institutions have never condemned any government policy - not least the restrictions on Palestinian universities' academic freedom - they are home to many vocal critics of Israel's rights-abusive policies. Those voices are considered traitorous and consequently in need of being stifled. Joining such attacks are Americans like Alan M. Dershowitz, who in a recent visit to Tel-Aviv University called for the resignations of professors who supported the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli goods and divestment from Israeli companies until the country abides by international human-rights law. He named Rachel Giora and Anat Matar, both tenured professors at Tel Aviv University, as part of that group.

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Second, all Israeli universities depend on public funds for about 90 per cent of their budget. This has been identified as an Achilles heel. The idea is to exploit the firm alliance those right-wing organisations have with government members and provide the ammunition necessary to make financial support for universities conditional on the dissemination of nationalist thought and the suppression of "subversive ideas." Thus, in the eyes of those right-wing Israeli organisations, the universities are merely arms of the government.

And, yet, Im Tirtzu and other such organisations would not have been effective on their own; they depend on financial support from backers in the United States. As it turns out, some of their ideological allies are willing to dig deep into their pockets to support the cause.

The Rev. John C. Hagee, the leader of Christians United for Israel, has been Im Tirtzu's sugar daddy, and his ministries have provided the organisation with at least $100,000. After Im Tirtzu's most recent attack, however, even Mr Hagee concluded that it had gone overboard and decided to stop giving funds. The Hudson Institute, a neoconservative think tank that helped shape the Bush administration's Middle East policies, has funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Institute for Zionist Strategies over the past few years, and was practically its only donor. For Christians United and the Hudson Institute, the attack on academic freedom is clearly also a way of advancing much broader objectives.

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About the Author

Neve Gordon is the co-author (with Nicola Perugini) of the newly released The Human Right to Dominate.

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All articles by Neve Gordon

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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