Several prominent U.S. academics have come to Neve Gordon’s defense after he published an endorsement of the Global BDS movement in op-eds in the Guardian and L.A. Times. As I’ve written here, Israel’s right wing media, politicians and Gordon’s Ben Gurion University have closed ranks against him. The school’s president even suggested he should leave if he doesn’t like it there. In the process, Gordon’s Israeli critics have displayed the inadequacy of Israeli notions of academic freedom and free speech.
This is why it is important that two distinguished academics, Stephen Walt and Jerome Slater, have risen to Gordon’s defense. In his Foreign Policy blog, Walt weighs in with a colloquium on the meaning of academic freedom. It is a lesson that it would do Pres. Carmi a world of good to study:
…Neither President Carmi nor her spokesperson seem to understand what academic freedom is all about. The tenure system and the principle of academic freedom exists for one main reason: to permit academics to say what they think without fear of retribution (provided, of course, that they aren’t advocating a violent crime or some equally heinous act). Reasonable people can take issue with what Gordon wrote, of course, but nothing he said is even remotely near the boundaries of acceptable discourse in a democracy that values free speech and academic freedom. I’m not quarreling with President Carmi’s right to disagree with Gordon; I’m just saying that her statements are at odds with the core principle of academic freedom, a principle that senior academic administrators are supposed to defend. She can’t fire him, of course, but for her to call his op-ed an “an abuse of freedom of speech” was clearly intended to have a chilling effect on discourse. And trying to stifle the free exchange of ideas is not what we normally expect university presidents to do.
…This incident illustrates the harmful effects that the occupation is having on Israel itself. As opinions harden and the Israeli body politic moves rightward, dissenting voices inevitably get squelched or encouraged to leave the country. Any and all criticisms of Israel’s conduct get attributed to either enduring anti-Semitism (when made by gentiles) or labeled as treason or “self-hatred” (when made by Jews). Israel’s universities, once a legitimate source of national pride, become more and more politicized, with faculty expected to stay within the “acceptable” national consensus and with donors encouraged to fund programs intended to propagandize rather than enlighten.
Jerome Slater, emeritus professor at SUNY Buffalo, has also weighed in with a letter to Pres. Carmi. If you are an academic I urge you to disseminate this post to your colleagues and ask them to write to BGU’s president:
Dear Prof. Carmi:
I am a retired political science professor, still active in writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…In the 1960s, following service as an anti-submarine warfare officer on a U.S. destroyer, I wrote to the Israeli embassy to volunteer my services on an Israeli destroyer, should that be necessary. In the spring of 1989 I was a Fulbright lecturer at Haifa University.
Those are my credentials. I write now to protest as strongly as I can your attack on Neve Gordon. That Israel is becoming an apartheid state, and if not that, then a brutalizing occupier and represser of the Palestinians is plain to anyone who has even rudimentary knowledge of the history of Israel’s behavior towards the Palestinians…Rather than becoming a light unto the nations. Israel today has fallen into a moral abyss.
It does not necessarily follow that Gordon is right in calling for a boycott…However, your attack on Gordon, your invitation for him to leave the country, will only have the effect of making Israel–even its universities, or at least BGU–even more reprehensible in the eyes of knowledgeable people. Including American Jews, like me.
I should add that this isn’t the first time that BGU has fallen down in its duty to defend academic freedom. Prof. Yigal Arens, a professor of artificial intelligence at USC, had been invited to participate in an academic panel in his field at a conference at the University. But when members of the Israeli intelligence services also participating in the conference threatened to withdraw unless Arens was excluded–he was. It seems Prof. Arens views on the Occupation are considered too extreme by some in the intelligence establishment. Perhaps they feared that he (the son of Israel’s former Likud defense minister, Moshe Arens) might reveal state secrets to Israel’s enemies. At any rate, one can see a pattern emerge here. Academic freedom is window dressing as far as Israel is concerned. It is honored only in the breach and when necessary. When the chips fall it is jettisoned as easily as a litterbug throws a butt out a car window.
A side issue to consider in light of the debate over BDS and academic boycotts is the claim by opponents that politics should not interfere with the free exchange of ideas that occurs on a campus. But doesn’t BGU’s behavior in both instances above put the lie to this contention? In other words, Israeli universities are just as political in their way as advocates of the academic boycott. President Carmi would make a much stronger case against academic boycott would she and her faculty honor the principle of academic freedom themselves.