(April 25, 2019 / JNS) Haute École Pédagogigue (HEP), a Swiss teacher-training institute in Lausanne in the French-speaking Canton of Vaud, has modified a teacher-training seminar on the Israeli-Arab conflict to address accusations that the original speakers trafficked in blatant anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views. As the result of community activism, the April 29-30 course designed for high school teachers will now be balanced to include pro-Israel perspectives.
The controversy began last summer, when HEP advertised an October course titled: "1948: Knowing and Teaching the Palestinian Nakba ['Catastrophe']." The term nakba is often used by anti-Zionists to refer to a so-called "holocaust" perpetrated against Palestinians upon Israel's War or Independence. Original speakers included Israeli academics mainstream pro-Israel analysts consider to be anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian propagandists. They include Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University and author of The Invention of the Jewish People; and Ilan Pappé, professor at University of Exeter and a regular at pro-Palestinian events who calls for a boycott of Israel.
The event immediately set off alarm bells among Jewish rights' activists, the Israel-Swiss Association, the Jewish community, and concerned citizens and academics who viewed the title and content as inflammatory and historically false.
Marcel Cohen Dumani, former vice president of the Lausanne Jewish community, said controversial figures such as Sand and Pappé tout their Israeli credentials to gain credibility within the academic scene, and the organizer of the course, Jean-Benoît Clerc, fell for it.
"It's not a question of freedom of speech," Cohen Dumani told JNS. "It was unbalanced and devoted to support for the Palestinian cause."
At the international level, Shimon Samuels, European director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, called the original course an "anti-Semitic hatefest" that denied the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.
"The speakers are not historians. They're not really academics," Samuels told JNS. "They're bent on agitation. They're agitators."
Over the course of several months, efforts were made to balance the course, and now Israeli academics including Benny Morris of Ben-Gurion University, Ilan Greilsammer of Bar-Ilan University, Emmanuel Navon of Tel Aviv University and writer Rosie Pinhas-Delpuech will present counterviews.
In conversations with Lausanne officials, including Cesla Amarelle, Vaud's head of the Department of Training, Youth, and Culture, Cohen Dumani cited a law that dictates that academic institutions must provide rigorous discussion of scientific, social, political, philosophical and religious opinions. The Israeli embassy in Switzerland also played a role.
"The Embassy of Israel in Switzerland is concerned about the course the HEP Vaud is proposing under the title '1948: Aux origins du problème des réfugiés palestiniens,' as it is completely unbalanced," an embassy spokesperson told JNS.org at the height of the scandal. "The Embassy has addressed its concerns in a letter to the institution last year and has been in contact with the rector of the HEP."
As demands grew to balance the course, which was postponed until April, so, too, did the outcry from proponents of the original program.
"You have the extreme left in the local parliament start accusing the minister of censorship and interfering in freedom of academic speech," said Cohen Dumani. "So it started to be a political decision, and it became worse and worse." But he credits the Amarelle for standing her ground.
'The need for balance'
At first, according to the local opposition, the rector resisted the call for fundamental change, but a turning point came when Jacques Ehrenfreund, an Israeli-Swiss professor of Judaism at the University of Lausanne, publicly criticized the event in a well-regarded newspaper, 24 Heures.
"I was very angry. Firstly, this accusation was ridiculous," he said. "This was a not matter of academic freedom because no pro-Israel voice was represented in this lecture. After the article came out, the rector got cold feet, and a month ago he turned to me, initiated a meeting, and we met, and then the training was renewed. He accepted in principle for the need for balance and not politicizing academia."
Responding to JNS over e-mail, HEP rector Guillaume Vanhulst justified the original choice of speakers.
"These two Israeli historians, Professor Pappé and Professor Sand, are invited to Lausanne for their academic skills on the theme of the 1948 events, and for no other reason. And it is on the very same academic criteria that we have called on a few additional social-science scholars who will present different analyses of the 1948 events, as a response to those who deemed the former program unbalanced."
As it now stands, Israeli academics are outnumbered by pro-Israel speakers, five to four. Still, Cohen Dumani is overall satisfied despite concerns that some speakers are still anti-Israel propagandists, rather than legitimate academic voices.
Ehrenfreund believes that this resolution in a scandal-averse Switzerland bodes well for the effectiveness of community action and, more generally, for the future of Israeli-Arab discourse in the country, saying, "I'm not sure this kind of story would turn out better in France, for instance."