Last March, a Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor lodged a complaint against his colleague, Prof. Moshe Zimmerman for venturing a remark in the classroom in support of Israel Defense Force soldiers who refuse to serve in the territories. A demand for disciplinary action against Zimmerman was reviewed - even after it was established that the complaint was factually unfounded - and that it would not have warranted censure even if true.
At Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, lecturers demonstrated against conferring an honorary doctorate on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Others protested when Yossi Beilin was invited to lecture on campus.
In recent months, Education Minister Limor Livnat has complained to University of Haifa Rector Prof. Aharon Ben-Ze'ev about political statements Prof. Avraham Oz from the theater department made in class. Livnat has also complained to Ben-Gurion University President Prof. Avishai Braverman over comments in an article published by the head of the university's Institute for Social Research, Prof. Lev Greenberg. And Livnat protested to the Hebrew University's President, Prof. Menachem Magidor about Zimmerman's statement.
Responding to reports of Zimmerman's remarks, and also to a petition signed by some 40 Hebrew University lecturers (the document was later signed by 250 university teaching staff members) which expressed support for "students who refuse to serve in the conquered territories," Livnat knocked on the door of government attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein. She asked for his opinion as to how she should "act against lecturers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, since their activities encourage infraction of the law, and perhaps also sedition."
Livnat's turn to Rubinstein set the stage for a Knesset Education and Culture Committee hearing on academic freedom sponsored by Zahava Gal-On, MK (Meretz). To her chagrin, Gal-On found that at the end of this meeting she was in a minority - most Knesset committee members supported Livnat's approach on the issue.
It's worth mentioning that the Education and Culture Committee asked Prof. Magidor to submit as evidence the petition that dozens of Hebrew University staff members had signed. The Hebrew University President refused to cooperate with this request, even though he personally opposes refusal to serve in the territories. "I don't supervise what faculty members say and what they disseminate," Magidor told Ha'aretz.
Not your business
He insists that just as such matters are not for University administrators to monitor and censor, the Knesset Committee has no business dealing with it. Nonplussed, Livnat pushed on. She informed the Knesset Committee that she intends to turn to the University of Haifa Rector about another political statement made by Prof. Vered Krauss, during a lecture on statistics.
Do the events outlined here pose a threat to academic freedom in Israel? According to Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, a member of the Hebrew University's Law Faculty, dangers facing academic freedom are more serious today than ever before. "This is due to the addition of trying events that are continuing longer than they ever have in the past. The events of the times have created an atmosphere of impatience toward ideas that are not part of the consensus. Worthy political leaders should have made a major effort to stem this wave [of intolerance], and send a message of openness and tolerance toward unorthodox opinions. I think that the leadership is doing the exact opposite."
Prof. Shlomo Avineri, an expert on political thought from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, agrees that the mix of war-like events and grave social polarization creates circumstances that endanger academic freedom. "Without making any comparison, McCarthyism came to the fore in the U.S. at the peak of the Cold War." Avineri calls attention to efforts made in America after September 11, 2001 to curb the scope of academic freedom, at least with respect to the expression of criticism toward U.S. policy. Current circumstances in Israel, Avineri reflects, "enjoin great responsibility and restraint on the part of members of the academic community, and also considerable restraint on the part of state authorities."
It appears the attorney general concurs. In a written response to Livnat, Rubinstein wrote that Zimmerman's statement and the petition "are an irresponsible outrage. However, demands involving criminal prosecution in a sphere outside of the IDF, in the public realm, have to be forwarded with extreme caution." The State Prosecutor's Office has "discussed the possibility of initiating criminal steps with respect to calls for refusal to serve; but in the end it was decided not to proceed with [these steps], not at this time," Rubinstein wrote. He added that when legal authorities consider taking action against the expression of opinions, "considerable weight is given to the crucial centrality of the principle of freedom of speech." Rubinstein notified Livnat that complaints about concrete statements made by lecturers will continue to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
In Avineri's view, "anyone who calls on soldiers to refuse to serve in the territories undoubtedly puts himself under fire; in moral terms, his action is an abomination." Nonetheless, the prestigious Hebrew University political scientist, says "I don't think that it's the business of the Education Minister to intervene" in Zimmerman's case. Surely, Livnat can state her view on any matter in cabinet meetings, Avineri says, "but as Education Minister, she lacks status and authority to deal with the enforcement of the universities' laws."
Kremnitzer regrets that "instead of standing up for freedom of speech, which is currently endangered by a general public atmosphere of intolerance, [Livnat] is acting in the opposite direction, operating as a quasi-policewoman by monitoring statements made by academics. My expectation is that the Education Minister should uphold academic freedom rather than acting to curb it, and to intimidate the academic community."
Kremnitzer points out that the petition did not include an explicit, illegal endorsement of refusal to serve. The letter, he says, was formulated in a "careful manner which approaches the legal limit, without transgressing it." He too opposes refusal to serve in the territories, but believes that public discussion of the subject is important.
Prof. Magidor, who also chairs the committee of Israeli universities, says that whenever provocative statements are made nowadays on campus or in an academic context, "an atmosphere of hysteria" develops. He stresses that all the nation's universities, certainly the Hebrew University, "uphold the principle that any view which is not tantamount to incitement, and does not endorse violence or any reprehensible act, can be articulated."
The root of the problem is apparently the lack of clarity inherent in the concept "academic freedom." Everyone agrees that freedom of expression, a staple element of civil liberties, applies to each citizen so long as he or she does not break the law and academic freedom is subsumed within this principle of free expression. But, beyond these basic precepts, there remain a number of questions. The answers to them are far from obvious. Does the principle of academic freedom apply to political statements made by university lecturers? If the answer to this question is "yes," does the principle also protect the expression of a lecturer's personal opinion in class? If the answer here is "no," what rules of conduct apply to an academic who teaches political science, history, sociology, philosophy or other subjects in which handling of current events is sometimes unavoidable?
Testifying to the Knesset Education and Culture Committee, Livnat offered the following definition of academic freedom - the right is not unlimited, and it does not protect "any reprehensible" comment, and matters which do not pertain to research and professional treatment of a particular academic discipline. The Knesset Committee's majority decided that Livnat's appeal to the attorney general was "legitimate, and did not represent infringement of academic freedom."
Livnat's definition and the Committee's decision are supported by Dr. Ron Breiman, chairman of the Professors for a Strong Israel (PSI) group who took part in the Knesset panel's meeting PSI has about 500 members, most of them academics from fields of sciences and medicine. Dr. Breiman, from Tel Aviv University, acknowledges that there is less occasion and prompting for a lecturer in the sciences to express a political opinion in class.
Breiman views refusal to serve as an illegal form of "desertion." Encouragement of refusal to serve is also illegal, he believes. Such infractions are not protected by the rule of academic freedom, the PSI chairman maintains; they are subject to rule of law norms which govern freedom of speech. Anyone who advocates "desertion" should face criminal prosecution.
Academic freedom, Breiman explains, has limits. A lecturer has no right to express his or her own opinion in class, he says, since such statements pressure students, since they are afraid to express a contrary view, wary that doing so might hurt their grades, or chances of advancement. He also believes that discussion of the extreme right in a class must also be balanced by treatment of the extreme left; otherwise, a lecture is tendentious, and illegitimate. Should the idea of the transfer of Arabs come up in a class, Breiman says (he himself opposes transfer), the transfer of Jews should be opposed in a manner analogous to the condemnation of the transfer of Arabs.
Breiman says that it's hard to precisely demarcate the borders of the rule of academic freedom. Statements made by academics must be plausible and prudent; it is best, Breiman says, to leave these standards of prudence and good taste to the discretion of the lecturer. Prof. Zimmerman violated these standards, Breiman believes, but he does not argue that Zimmerman should face trial. The best course of action is for the academic community as a whole to prohibit such wrongful statements of personal opinion.
Critical and skeptical
Kremnitzer upholds a different conception of the essence of academic freedom. It is clear, he says, that academic freedom does not protect racist comments or remarks which can humiliate and flagrantly insult persons, and statements that incite violence have no place in academia. But racist or inciting expressions are banned by law. The specific meaning of academic freedom as part of the principle of free speech is that "persons from the academic community are allowed in in academic institutions to pursue thoughts to the fullest extent. That is the ethos of academic freedom."
Academics are expected to examine consensus ideas critically, and not to accept them passively. An academic's vocation is to be critical and skeptical. In order to protect this role, "the rule of academic freedom has to be protected to the fullest extent permissible," Kremnitzer concludes.
The principle of academic freedom is anchored in the law. Section 15 of the higher education law maintains that "a recognized [academic] institution is free to administer its academic matters under its budgetary framework as it sees fit." Yet a review of specific university regulations which hold sway at the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, the University of Haifa, Ben-Gurion University and Bar-Ilan University indicates that the concept of academic freedom is not detailed.
It appears that this absence of a definition is no academic. Kremnitzer explains that academic freedom is a complex concept, and "I am not sure that any specific formulation can describe it in a full, satisfactory fashion. So it's best to leave this as a matter of the general ethos." Avineri says that were attempts made to define academic freedom, each university would define the idea differently, and not standard, accepted formula would be reached. However, Avineri adds, this fact is not problematic. "The state enables universities to funct'ion economically, and it does not intervene in terms of the contents of what is taught in them; on the other hand, it upholds academic freedom in the sense that it allows academic to enforce its own limits." He adds: "The academic community and its members must relate to academic freedom as a cornerstone to be protected."
The basic question remains: what is a lecturer allowed to say in class? Prof. Zimmerman represents the extreme approach. As a historian, he says: "History ends in the present. Thus, all these subjects, including refusal to serve or Israeli behavior in the conquered territories, or problems with Israel's political regime, are just as pertinent as any other historical topic."
Avineri, in contrast, does not believe that "it is the role of a university lecturer to express his political view in class." A professor should "be cautious, and not digress toward current events, so as not to transform university study into a derivative model of a current events talk show."
As to Zimmerman's contention that history ends in the present, Avineri replies: "That is the position of someone who wants to transform the universities from responsible research institutions into schools for political activity. That would be the end of the universities as we know them."
Kremnitzer rejects the contention that a lecturer's expression of his or her personal view imposes pressure on students. For the same lecturer can write an article in a newspaper, and his or her views are known in public in any case. Students, Kremnitzer says, are not children, and a lecturer's views have no special influence upon them.
He thinks it is acceptable if Prof. Zimmerman makes a comparative reference to current events during a lecture on the history of Germany - such current event comparisons are legitimate so long as students have the right to express contrasting views. Such current event references "make learning more challenging and real," says Kremnitzer. In any case, academics tend to prefer persons who disagree with their own views rather than ones who blindly agree with what they say. "It just isn't interesting when somebody duplicates [my views]," he says. "I'm looking for someone who will argue with me."
Prof. Moshe Zimmerman teaches a course for first years students at the Hebrew University entitled "Introduction to the late modern period." Some 200 students were enrolled in the course this year. These included a group of 40 students who are officers from the IDF's Tactical Command Academy. In March, half an hour before the first class of the second semester, Zimmerman was notified that this group would not make it to the lecture since its members were deployed at roadblocks.
Zimmerman related to this development at the start of his lecture. A review conducted by the Hebrew University in response to a complaint lodged about the incident established that Zimmerman said the following: "There is a group of students which cannot come today due to the excuse that its members are guarding at checkpoints, and the like. Such an excuse is not acceptable to me. Were they to be missing because they were serving in jail due to a refusal to serve in the territories, that would be satisfactory to me."
Prof. Menahem Kahana, from the Hebrew University's Talmud Department, lodged the complaint against Zimmerman, based on a report of the incident in the Makor Rishon newspaper. Kahana noted that the report suggested that Zimmerman would discriminate against students who were absent from the university due to reserve service, and that he would give preferential treatment to those who refused to serve. Kahana withdrew his complaint after the University's review established what Zimmerman actually said - had he been aware of the precise contents of the remarks, he would not have lodged the complaint, even if Zimmerman's statement was unworthy, the Talmud scholar explains.
In parallel, the head of the Tactical Command College, Colonel Danny Davidi, along with Brigadier General Yaakov Zigdon from the IDF's Command and Staff College, sent a harsh letter to the Hebrew University's Rector, Prof. Haim Rabinowitch. "The statements made by the professor are more damaging and dangerous than the sale of weapons and ammunition to the Palestinians," the letter declared. Zimmerman's comments, the two IDF officers objected, would furnish an unlimited supply of propaganda ammunition to the Palestinians. The letter's authors claimed that Zimmerman used a history lecture as a platform for his own views, and imposed his opinion about the officers on the class.
The officers' anger continues to simmer. Recently they worked out an agreement with the Hebrew University's Dean of Humanities, Prof. Gabriel Motzkin by which the introduction to modern history course will be given to officers from the Tactical Command college in summer school, by a different lecturer. The IDF Spokesman and the Hebrew University Spokesman deny that this agreement constitutes a dictate imposed by the army, and that the university surrendered to IDF pressure. Both spokesmen present a number of specific, professional arguments to support the change in arrangements for the course.
Prof. Kremnitzer says: "Had Zimmerman announced that 'I will give bonus points to persons who refuse to serve,' I would say that his remark is unacceptable, and that it ought to be denounced. But if someone says, as a personal opinion, 'the refuser is closer to my heart than one who serves,' I don't regard it an unacceptable remark." Kremnitzer also responded to the harsh language in the officers' castigation of Zimmerman: "The comparison drawn between Zimmerman's comments and the sale of guns to the enemy is insidious. To put him in the category of persons who commit clear acts of treason ... is the way of the witch hunt."