The only democracy in the Middle East™ seems to honor its democratic values only in the breach. So much for academic freedom and freedom of speech Israel-style, when it comes to the case of Prof. Neve Gordon of Ben Gurion University. He wrote an opinion piece in the L.A. Times this week, Boycott Israel, which announced his support for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. While it hasn’t stirred any revolutionary fervor on the left, Gordon has struck a nerve on the Israeli right and among its fellow travelers here in the U.S.
CAMERA, the pro-Israel advocacy group, has called for the professor (“a veteran defamer of Israel”) to be put in the stocks and flogged (not literally). The Israeli consul in Los Angeles has slyly encouraged a fundraising boycott against Ben Gurion among U.S. Jewish donors. Arutz Sheva (“All Settlers All the Time”) notes that MKs “across the political spectrum” (translation: from the right to the extreme right) have called for Gordon’s head on a platter.
All this has apparently made BGU’s president quake in her boots. University presidents are notoriously squishy when it comes to maintaining any strong sense of principle in the face of public attack. Rivka Carmi is no exception. Realizing she can’t fire Gordon, who has tenure (and chairs his academic department), she does the next best thing by inviting the ungrateful bastard to do a Pappe-Reinhardt (they were two Israeli professor-peace activists so ostracized within their universities that they were forced to secure teaching positions in England and New York respectively). If you don’t like it here, get the hell out, she declares. Then BGU would be well rid of the snake in the grass nipping at its heels.
Carmi shows remarkably little understanding of the meaning of the term “academic freedom” when she lets loose this quip:
BGU President Prof. Rivka Carmi called Gordon’s views “destructive” and an “abuse [of] the freedom of speech prevailing in Israel and at BGU.
“We are shocked and outraged by [Gordon's] remarks, which are both irresponsible and morally reprehensible…
Since when is a professor publishing a legitimate point of view on a subject that falls within his academic specialty an “abuse” of free speech? I would think she would recognize that this is precisely the epitome of it. I also fail to see how supporting the boycott can be “morally reprehensible.” She is again confusing a legitimate (albeit controversial) political-academic argument with morality. This is a failing of reason on her part. When one of her faculty publishes a political text with which she agrees and brings acclaim to BGU, then it is morally wholesome. But when Gordon publishes a view Israeli politicians detest, then it becomes immoral, when in truth it has nothing whatsoever to do with morality.
I also found oddly counter-productive, the spin of BGU’s PR flack, who seemed to exaggerate the extent of the fundraising boycott against the University:
…The backlash to Gordon’s article…had…turned into a campaign for donors to pull funding from the university and was “snowballing…”
First, there is no indication whatsoever, except in a vague statement by Israel’s consul in L.A., that anyone was contemplating withholding funds from BGU. Second, my impression always was that public spokespeople were supposed to put an institution’s best foot forward no matter what. This statement would appear to violate Rule #1 of flackery.
Like her boss, BGU’s spokesperson has a faulty concept of freedom of speech:
“We’re proud to have a full range of political views at the university, and I want to live in a country that protects freedom of speech, but Gordon’s remarks are beyond the pale.
Isn’t the whole point of freedom of speech that there is no such thing as “beyond the pale” unless you’re advocating killing someone or some other serious crime? And why is advocating a targeted boycott “beyond the pale?” Who decreed that such a view was outside the norm of polite public discourse in Israel or the world?
The Jerusalem Post article closes with this passage which is meant to criticize Gordon, but fails to hit the mark:
Multiple attempts were made to reach Gordon on Sunday, but calls by the Post were not answered and messages were not returned.
Gee, I wonder why Neve might not be interested in talking to one of Israel’s nastiest and most right-wing scandal sheets? Could it be he was concerned they might manipulate or distort his remarks?
The Post’s editorial on the subject (yes, an Israeli newspaper devoted an entire editorial to a single op-ed published in a U.S. newspaper) is all over the map. It calls on BGU donors not to boycott the school. But rather urges a different response:
The most apt response would be for contributors to endow a chair in Zionist studies in Gordon’s department, and for the university to fill it with a Zionist scholar of world renown.
The placement of the adjective “Zionist” is quite instructive: not a “scholar of Zionism” but a “Zionist scholar.” Indeed, I would say there cannot be such a thing as a Zionist scholar for this is a violation of the detachment necessary for academic studies. Certainly there can and should be scholars of Zionism. But someone who is a Zionist scholar has already betrayed fundamental principles. Must someone teaching Chinese studies be Chinese? Must someone teaching Jewish studies be Jewish? Of course not. In fact, any school which set out such a rule would be blasted for it. So the Post’s calling for the appointment of a scholar who is a confirmed Zionist should make BGU into a pariah. But given the politicization of Israeli academia it will pass unremarked by all but bleeding hearts like Gordon, a few of his academic colleagues, and this writer.