Friday, November 25, 2011

From the Battle for the Olive Groves to War in the Groves of Academe

AS people in Egypt courageously attempt to regain the reins of their revolution, an Israeli strolling in Tahrir Square was surprised to hear more than one protester say that what they wanted was "democracy like they have in Israel".

They did not burst into a rendition of the Zionist Hatikva, which the Israeli Education ministry would like to impose in all schools; nor were they under illusions as to how much real equality they would enjoy as Arab citizens in Israel (which proclaims itself the Jewish state), let alone as to how much democracy the Israeli state is prepared to concede to Palestine, i.e. the territories it has held under occupation for 44 years.

If anyone needed a reminder of Netanyahu's attitude on the neighbour's rights, he has just reimposed the Israeli freeze on Palestinian funds, previously clamped when Palestine won UNESCO recognition, now imposed again because Fatah and Hamas have agreed on partnership. The Israeli government would sooner have them engage in civil war, even if it means Hamas in Gaza would not be bound by any peace that the Palestine Authority makes.
Peace? Who wants that? We got America backing us, ain't we?

What the people our Israeli reporter heard were trying to say simply was that they want the same kind of democratic rights in their country as Israelis were supposed to enjoy in their state, the right to criticise leaders and governments, to protest and strike, even to screw up as Israelis have done in electing lousy governments.

And what the reporter found ironic was that just when people in Arab countries were risking their lives for freedom, Israelis were facing the dimunition of theirs in the name of patriotism and security. The measures so far - the jailing of a journalist who went too far, the restrictions on funding of non-governmental organisations, the removal of a TV station's license - might not seem too exceptional, when each was taken on their own. But they are not being taken on their own.

"A nation which enslaves others forges its own chains" was an old adage which some thoughtful Israelis quoted as far back as 1968 when it became evident their government had no intention of voluntarily relinquishing the territories it had gained in the previous year's war. We might also remember Abraham Lincoln's realisation that America could not remain half-slave, and half -free. Israel has got away with it for 44 years, with American support, proclaiming itself "the only democracy in the Middle East", albeit not equally a state for all its citizens (it claims instead to be for many of us who are not), while ruling over the neighbouring people by brute force.

The Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine, guarded by Israeli troops, are untroubled by some of the laws which Israel boasts, such as on employment, discrimination or women's rights, and the right-wing settlers have only contempt for the democracy of ordinary Israelis. But these settlements and their yeshivot have become the bases for forays into Israel proper, fostering hate and terror against the Arab minority and others, including recently Jewish peace supporters, in a manner which Diaspora Jews will find all too reminiscent of fascist and antisemitic movements.

Veteran peace campaigner Uri Avnery has remarked that what he fears more than Israel annexing the West Bank is that the right-wing settlers will annex Israel.

Against the background of these tensions, it is interesting to see fissures opening in Israel's academic establishments. These do seem to run deeper than the rivalries and competition for funds that we might see elsewhere, even though funding is involved.

"Bar Ilan University is the only Zionist university left in Israel,” – asserted Professor Efraim Inbar, Director of that institution's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, at a gala dinner of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) held last Tuesday night in New York. The ZOA are not any old Zionists, mind. Led at one time by liberal figures like Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Hillel Silver, they have moved sharply to the Right, denouncing other Jewish organisations for being 'soft' on such 'terrorists' as Nelson Mandela, and condemning Israel's decision to withdraw settlers and troops from Gaza, whose people they say should receive no US funds or outside support until they totally end opposition to the State of Israel.

Contacted by the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Inbar stood by his claim, saying Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, for example, were “not Zionist” in his opinion. “There are many Bolshevik post-Zionists at these universities, who pack their faculties with similar-minded lecturers. The Israeli universities are overflowing with post-Modernists who undermine not only Zionism but academic truth itself.”

Inbar said that although he knows that there are also Zionist lecturers at the various Social Studies faculties, they are outnumbered. “An evil wind is emanating from these places,” he said.

Inbar’s comments were received warmly by an 800-strong audience that came to the Grand Hyatt Hotel in midtown Manhattan to see right-wing talk-show host Glenn Beck receive the “Dr. Miriam & Sheldon Adelson Defender of Israel Award”. Another award was given to House Foreign Relations chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who denounced the "dangerous Palestinian scheme" of achieving UN recognition and statehood, and praised Israeli West Bank settlements as "not an impediment to peace - but a solution for Israel’s survival.”

To really make up the evening, and thrill the audience, Republican presidential contender Michele Bachmann called for the US Navy to blockade Iran, and the Pentagon to prepare "war plans".

To be sure, Bar Ilan University has some claim to be outstanding. Among its more famous alumni is Yigal Amir, who is serving a life sentence for the assassination in 1995 of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin whom he considered a traitor for trying to make peace with the Palestinians. Though thousands of Israelis rally each year in honour of the murdered leader, some 14 per cent of the population said Amir should be pardoned, and last year Bar Ilan students partied on the anniversary of the assassination, though they claimed this was just a coincidence as they were celebrating the college term opening.

Some 70 prominent lecturers from various Israeli universities accused Bar-Ilan University of political persecution and denying lecturers promotion and tenure due to their politics, following the university's decision to deny tenure to Dr. Ariella Azoulay last year, and more recent decision not to promote Dr. Menachem Klein, of the political science department, to professor. Bar-Ilan dismissed the allegations saying "decisions about promoting lecturers are made solely on the basis of their academic achievements."

Azoulay, who has published about 10 books and numerous essays in prominent journals, said the university denied her tenure and promotion because of her leftist leanings. "Dr. Azoulay is one of the world's leading researchers in photography and visual culture," the lecturers' group wrote to the Council and Bar-Ilan's president and rector. In view of Azoulay's international recognition, "the university's decision raises a heavy suspicion of political persecution," they wrote.

Prof. Yaron Ezrachi of Hebrew University's political science department said "Bar-Ilan has learned to conceal political considerations, disguising them as academic processes. We fear the precedent of firing lecturers for radical political views of any kind, despite their international academic excellence. This could contaminate the entire higher education system in Israel."

A university which has attracted a different kind of attention is Ben Gurion University of the Negev, based in Be'ersheva. A report in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot says that a committee appointed by the Israeli Council for Higher Education has recommended closing the university's department of politics and government, on account of its "extreme leftist tendency".

We must remember that what supporters of the Israeli government consider "extreme leftist" might not strike everyone as particularly "leftist" at all, but even moderate criticism of the treatment of Palestinians, including that of Negev Bedouin, may be deemed so. What the department's critics seem to particularly dislike is that not only do lecturers express their own opinions, but the department encourages students to partipate in community activity off campus as part of their work.

It seems that the committee investigating BG University sought an unusually high amount of student input into its report, and this looks suspiciously like the work of Im Tirzu, the right-wing student outfit whose members have come from the army, and whose funds have been boosted by right-wing American support. Israeli Education Minister Gideon Saar is chair of the Israeli Council on Higher Education and a supporter of Im Tirzu.

One person in BG's politics department who has particularly angered the right-wing and brought the witch-hunters buzzing around Be'ersheba is Neve Gordon. An ex-paratrooper with war disabilities, he has been a director of Physicians for Human Rights, formed during the first Intifada, and is a member of Ta'ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership, which has organisd practical solidarity such as food and medical supply convoys to villages under curfew.

A supporter of the Israeli peace camp and Palestinian statehood, Neve Gordon won a noted libel action against American-born Haifa academic Steven Plaut, one of the initiators of the Israeli campus witch hunt.

Then Dr.Gordon wrote in a Los Angeles Times piece on August 20, 2009 that he had decided to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement because Israel had become a right-wing apartheid state and he felt he had no choice but to support such actions. This led to threats by some US donors to withhold funds from Ben-Gurion University, and the university tried to distance itself from Dr.Gordon. Ben-Gurion University president Professsor Rivka Carmi, said, "We are appalled by Dr. Neve Gordon's irresponsible remarks, that morally deserve to be completely and utterly condemned. "We disapprove of Gordon's disastrous views and reject his cynical exploitation of the freedom of speech in Israel and the university."

Education Minister Saar called Gordon's article "repugnant and deplorable. The Israeli government has since legislated against support for boycott. But Professor Carmi was unable to persuade Dr.Gordon to quit, and the department promoted him to head it. Now Professor Carmi has had to defend her university against a broader attack.

Not that Ben Gurion University is encouraging resistance to the demands of the military and its state. It cut the pay of Professor Idan Landau who was jailed in May for refusing to perform army reserve duty. Professor Landau has refused reserve duty for the last 11 years and has been jailed three times, but this is the first time that the university has taken any action against him. King's College professor Shalom Lappin, known to some of us as a left-Zionist Peace (but not Now) type has joined academics from Israel and abroad in writing to the BG president, Professor Rivka Carmi, to challenge the university's decision.

Professor Lappin, who said he did not agree with Professor Landau's actions, nevertheless said he was "appalled" at the BGU response. He wrote: "Despite your insistence that this decision is not politically motivated, the fact that Professor Landau was singled out for this punItive action suggests that it was, in fact, a vindictive expression of political opinion, as well as a gross abuse of administrative authority. I strongly doubt that you would have penalised a faculty member who took a week off his/her academic duties to engage in political activities that you agree with.
"Nor, I suspect, would you have applied this sanction to a colleague who was absent from campus for a week in order to attend to family or personal business, and taught make up classes to compensate his/her students, as Professor Landau did."

The university response, written by lawyer Almog Tzabar, said: "Landau was not punished by the university nor did the university impose any sanctions upon him because of his political views or because the university is taking any sort of position concerning his choice not to do reserve duty.

"An employee is paid a salary for working. Since Landau was in jail, he was unable to work during his period of incarceration – and therefore is not eligible for the salary he would have earned during that period. Therefore, in accordance with solicited legal advice, it was decided to dock his salary for that period because he was not working.
"Nevertheless, above and beyond any legal requirements, since Landau did fulfil his teaching requirements, it was decided to dock 50 per cent of his salary for the time he was absent from work. Not only is this behaviour not improper, this decision reflects the university administration's cautious use of public funds."

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home