The problem of scholars injecting politics into their classroom and published works is an old one. But a powerful new article by Ofira Seliktar demonstrates that Israeli scholars - historians, political scientists, and others - have gone far beyond protesting against their state in these ways. In conjunction with pro-Palestinian and "peace" activists many have actively worked to delegitimize Israel in the eyes of the world, and have proposed its destruction. This is being paid for by Jewish support of higher education in Israel, and of organizations such as the US-based Association for Israel Studies.
Seliktar, an Israeli-born former professor of political science at Temple University, is no stranger to controversy. Among her recent books are a study of American Jewish attitudes toward the Arab-Israeli peace process and others detailing American intelligence failures regarding the Soviet Union and Iran.
While researching a new book on the failure of the Oslo Accords Seliktar noted the predominance of Israeli academics among Oslo's promoters, but even more disturbingly, working in conjunction with NGOs and others to discredit Israel. Her article, which will appear in the next issue of the journal Israel Affairs, will generate even more controversy.
It was a small step to go from the "New Historians" of the 1980s to today. The "New Historians," including Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe and Tom Segev, were a small school of revisionists who challenged the dominant and often gauzy stories of Israel's founding. Other Israeli university figures such as linguist Tanya Reinharz, sociologists Baruch Kimmerling and Yehuda Shenhav, philosopher Anat Bilezki and geographer Oren Yiftachel, took the critique in new directions.
Armed with the latest academic theories, they set out to deconstruct every facet of Israeli history and society. Above all they focused on Israel's treatment of Palestinians, but also decried its treatment of Mizrahim, women and Judaism. All these and more were victims of Zionism and the Israeli state. The rights of Palestinians were trampled, opportunities for peace with Arab neighbors were rebuffed, all non-Ashkenazim were discriminated against and cultures were suppressed.
Shenhav, of Tel Aviv University, for example, saw the Ashkenazi elite manipulating the Sephardim, who had lived peacefully with their Arab neighbors, into adopting a nationalist belief system that served the Zionist militaristic state. For Idith Zertal (and Norman Finkelstein) the crime has included Israel's use of the Holocaust. There was no end to the litany of evils.
Many Israeli academics have long been active in, or have even run, local NGOs such as Gush Shalom, B'Tselem, Yesh Gvul, the Committee to Stop Demolition of Houses in Palestine, the Committee to Stop Torture, and Courage to Resist. But the activism of a core group of a few dozen took the message far beyond the constraints of Israeli society. Through determined writing and endless speaking, a stream of petitions, and above all, skillful use of the Internet, their bitterness toward Zionism and Israel has spread far and wide. False accusations, such as the preposterous "Urgent Warning against the War in Iraq and the Support for the Right to Return of Palestinians to Israel," which warned that Israel planned to remove Palestinians should America attack Iraq, have been spread in close conjunction with Palestinian groups such as BADIL.
Neve Gordon and Lev Grinberg have pushed for a war-crimes tribunal against Israeli military officers, and many have been active in the divestment movement. The Anglican Church, among others, has seized on the testimony of these Israelis to support its position that Israel is a violent, colonial aggressor and as a result has decided to divest from firms doing business there. Their voices are amplified by portions of the American Jewish community, including Voices for Peace, Jews for Justice in the Middle East and others. Personal links between US activists and post-Zionists have resulted in divestment drives, such as in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which was partially set up by Tanya Reinharz. In fact, according to Reinharz and two colleagues, activists in the United States invited them to join the Ann Arbor initiative to undermine the much-publicized comment of Harvard president Lawrence H. Sumner that divestment is "anti-Semitic." The recent British effort to boycott Israeli universities was spearheaded by Pappe.
These professors have also spread their message in the US thanks to groups such as Faculty for Israeli Palestinian Peace and sponsors, including American Jewish philanthropists, such as the Helen Diller Foundation, which helped pay for Yiftachel and Gordon to spend time at the University of California. As Jewish critics of Israel they are protected from accusations of anti-Semitism, and have been endorsed by frequent appearances in publications such as Tikkun magazine.
Ironically, anti-Israel scholars are cited approvingly by the anti-Zionist American Council on Judaism, as well as by neo-Nazis. But they are also given center stage by the Association for Jewish Studies, and by Middle East scholars and Middle East Studies centers, who frequently host them and provide visiting appointments. Their presence gives the scholars the "legitimacy" they seek, while allowing their hosts to claim fairness in presenting an "Israeli viewpoint."
Although Seliktar doesn't use the language, it is clear that for some Middle East Studies scholars, anti-Zionists, and even neo-Nazis, activist Israeli scholars are "good Jews." The irony is that Israeli taxpayers still pay their salaries, and that their activities are supported by elements in the US Jewish community.
As Seliktar's paper points out, the explicitly political activities of activist scholars are given legitimacy and protected by their positions of authority and safety in universities.
But do politics that go beyond dissent to actively call for the ostracizing, punishment and even the de-facto destruction of Israel warrant the protections of academic freedom? What's academic about this sort of advocacy??
Seliktar notes the dearth of alternative institutions in Israeli society that might encourage greater intellectual pluralism. Until such an infrastructure is developed, until donors start asking questions about what is being done with their money, and until it is better appreciated how a few tenured professors have gone beyond the bounds of their academic appointments, little will change.
The writers work for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum that critiques academic Middle East studies.