University faculty members are currently being asked to sign a petition against Minister of Education Limor Livnat and her decision to cancel her participation in a meeting of the Board of Trustees of Ben-Gurion University. The reason: Prof. Lev Grinberg, a political sociologist from Ben-Gurion, published an article in a Belgian newspaper, in which he called that the targeted assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin “symbolic genocide”. Livnat was infuriated by the article, which was not the first to anger her. Two years ago, Grinberg published an article in which he claimed that Israel is engaged in “state terrorism” against the Palestinians. At that time, Livnat asked the university to distance itself and take action against the rebellious lecturer.
The university refused, both then and now for the predicable reason: academic freedom.
More that 400 academicians have signed a petition against Livnat. It reads “We protest the Minister of Education’s demand that a professor be fired because he expressed his political opinions in a legal manner. This demand and the sanctions that the Minister has taken against the university until her demand is met are a serious attempt to limit the freedom of expression”. The petition emphasizes that its intention is “to be careful in the defense of academicians’ freedom of expression, whatever their political opinions might be”. There is an error in the petition. Livnat did not ask for Grinberg to be fired. (See Livnat's response below)
Poisonous but Kosher
The storm has already spread overseas. In the prestigious “Times Higher Education Supplement”, Prof. David Newman, of the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University wrote an article entitled, “Threat to Academic Freedom”?
Newman deals with the case at hand and reports, “Letters have been sent to US supporters of Israeli universities urging them to withdraw financial support from institutions that employ “treasonous” faculty, as well as to university presidents and rectors in Israel, urging them to intervene in the promotion process of these individuals”. The war is heating up.
It is reasonable to assume that Newman was referring principally to the extremely right-wing Dr. Steven Plaut from Haifa University who has frequently referred to the Palestinians as “Nazis” and recommended to the government that “the three Hezbollah cities be turned into large parking lots”. Those are also comments that could raise an eyebrow. Plaut asked Professors for a Strong Israel to support Livnat and “congratulate her on her important Zionist work in denouncing the tenured anti-Israel extremists at Israeli universities, and especially those at Ben-Gurion University, who are supporting the enemies of their own country during time of war”. He suggests that “she launch a commission of investigation into the politicization of hiring and promotion and tenure procedures in Israeli universities, under which leftists with ludicrous and laughable 'academic records' get promoted and granted tenure as acts of political "solidarity" by other leftists already in the system, in some cases on the basis of their having published anti-Israel propaganda”. The headline of Plaut’s platform is a suggestion that “Israeli law be changed to allow the firing of faculty members with tenure if they engage in anti-Israel sedition”.
According to Livnat’s logic, she should not boycott only Ben-Gurion University. There is not one university in Israel that the does not have professors on its faculty who publish articles that are just as troublesome as those written by Grinberg. A symbolic selection has been mentioned in this column and merited criticism, which included attempts to silence this columnist. In the opinion of those hypocrites, poisonous criticism of Israel is completely kosher but exposing that criticism should be silenced.
Let us leave the issue of selective freedom of expression aside. Academic freedom is the issue being considered. This is not a simple issue. Livnat’s critics are correct in their claim that a boycott could cause people to be silenced. The problem is not only on the left. It is also on the right. For example, what would be done to a professor who identifies with the murderer Yigal Amir or one who supports transfer or one who directly or indirectly supports genocide of Arabs (destroying them as descendents of Amalek)?
Examining the anti-Israel comments of Israeli academicians is like entering a mine field. There are those who compare Israel to the Nazis and there are those who support the boycott of Israel. Others publish fantasies about plans for ethnic cleansing. The list is long. Any attempt to resolve this issue could cause an earthquake. It is doubtful that Livnat intend to do that.
On the other side, it is permissible to place the issue of the limits of academic freedom on the agenda. For example, it is clear that the report of “research” denying the holocaust would not be in the same category as Grinberg’s article. In France, at least two professors were fired for articles of that type. The issue of boundaries remains.
Censor or advisor?
Right now, the US congress is also dealing with these issues. On their agenda is an amendment to section 6 of the Higher Education Act, which allows subsidies in fields that the administration is interested in promoting, like Middle Eastern Studies. The authors of the amendment contend that the subsidy is also being given to programs that have become a platform for publishing anti-American propaganda. Therefore, they support the establishment of an “Advisory Committee”. They claim that the committee would not be a censor, only an advisor whose goal is to ensure balance. Opponents claim that it would be a “committee of commissars” that would trample academic freedom.
The issue here is similar. Should the public treasury fund and should universities provide a home for professors and articles that are not only critical or hostile but actually support solutions like transfer or genocide or deny the State’s right to exist. (For example, one professor recently dedicated a book to his sons and expressed the desire that they grow-up in “Modern Palestine”.)
Two weeks ago, Prof. Asa Kasher asked the Council for Higher Education to develop ethical standards that would try to address this messy field. Kasher’s proposal was made in the name of the Inter-university Committee for Academic Ethics, which was established a few years ago. They propose forbidding faculty members to participate in activities whose purpose is damage research budgets or academic institutions. In any case, condemnation would be the only sanction. Further on it states that if this activity "causes tangible damage to an academic institution in Israel…the academician would ethically be liable to disciplinary response from that institution”.
The hot potato has landed on the doorstep of the Council for Higher Education. Faculty members at Israeli academic institutions will continue to stretch the red line.
Freedom of expression, in general, and academic freedom, specifically, should allow these opinions to be expressed. There is a difference between the attempt to silence these voices, which is McCarthyism, and the need to make the public aware of them, to place them on the public agenda and repudiate those who hold them. Anyone who curses and slanders has no right to claim that it is forbidden to reproach him. On the other hand, sanctions against these people will turn them into martyrs. For them it would be “proof” that they are right. It is better to let them bark. Turning them into martyrs would do far more damage to Israel or an academic institution. We shouldn’t give them the pleasure.
I am also allowed to protest
The Minister of Education, Limor Livnat, responds:
I support the freedom of academic expression, even if I do not think that it is a fig-leaf that can be used to cover every kind of expression.
When I met with academicians in London, they expressed concern about the anti-Israel propaganda with which they must contend. They told me about Israeli professors who are leading the anti-Israel propaganda front. The meeting with them influenced me. Afterwards, I spoke with the heads of some Israeli universities. The discussion was on the level of principals. I did not prepare a list of professors who are working against Israel.
We are in a difficult period. There are calls to boycott our universities and their faculties. The struggle is difficult. Among us there are people who receive their salaries from the public treasury but still attack Israel in coarse language and compare us to Nazis. I don’t even have a problem with that. I am not in favor of silencing people. Let them say whatever they want. I am not saying it is forbidden.
However, the universities have an obligation to express their opinion and not hide behind academic freedom, as if it were a fig leaf. I asked them for an inquiry, and that they ask that professors not express themselves in that manner. However, they did nothing. Their response is automatic: “academic freedom”.
In my opinion, there are boundaries. If someone were to call for transfer, he would be set upon. Yet when it comes from the other side, they defend it with “academic freedom”. Academic freedom protects research, discussion and challenges to accepted assumptions but not attacks on the country that pays your salary.
I will not play into the hands of those who are tough on the other side. I am not boycotting anything. I am invited to many events. I am allowed to choose. I may choose to stay away until the issue is dealt with. Not dealing with the issue is escapism. It cheapens academic freedom. There are boundaries. I also have the right to comment and protest, in my way. I do not want to honor an institution that does not honor the State of Israel. I am not pursuing anyone. I only ask that the heads of the universities begin to act, to set policy. It is not my position to make the rules.