Terra Incognita: The (ir)responsibility of the academy
Nov. 15, 2009
Seth Frantzman , THE JERUSALEM POST
Recent debates surrounding politics at university have usually juxtaposed two different political viewpoints against one another. The Right argues that the academy is overflowing with extreme-leftist professors who work to undermine the existence of the state at home and abroad. The Left argues that its freedom of expression is being threatened by the Right and that its campaigns for "justice" or "human rights" are part of making the state more humane.
The Left believes that if a few of its extremist voices call for boycotts of their own universities then that might be "misplaced," but it is part and parcel of a democratic society. Perhaps both sides are right. The academy is at the forefront of anti-Israel intellectual extremism. It is also a bastion of freedom of expression in a free society.
But what both sides are missing is a third view of the academy, namely one that sees it as enshrining certain values, three of which should be responsibility, decency and maturity. The extreme-leftist antics of some faculty members should not be curtailed by laws or by dismissal from the academy. Instead there should be an inculcation of self-control.
Instead of crying "Nazi" every time the IDF does something an academic disagrees with, one could hold his tongue. Instead of requesting the boycott of one's own university, one could have some restraint. Instead of signing petitions encouraging soldiers to desert their units or calling on European powers to immediately intervene to "save" the Palestinians from a "genocide," one could show some self-control.
It is apparent that the central problem with too many of Israel's academics is that they are unsure of their place in society, they misunderstand their relevance and they are embittered and hysterical in their pronouncements to the point of having a childlike "crying wolf" mentality when discussing the conflict in the Middle East.
Consider a few examples. Prof. Ada Yonath, fresh after receiving a Nobel Prize, instead of saying a few words of praise for a society that gave her the opportunities to succeed and excel, immediately launched into a barrage of opinions about Gilad Schalit. She declared that Israel should release all its Palestinian prisoners and that holding them was the real source of all Palestinian attacks on Israel.
Prof. Ze'ev Sternhell, in the midst of the second intifada, when his own students were being massacred on buses, declared that Palestinians should "concentrate their struggle against the settlements." Students live in those very settlements that make up the outskirts of greater Jerusalem. Yet the professor felt confident that his role as a scholar of fascism meant he was endowed with the ability to decide who should die and who should live.
Dr. Anat Matar of Tel Aviv University, Dr. Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University and Dr. Ilan Pappe who was once of the University of Haifa have all supported boycotts of their own universities.
THERE WAS a time in history when academics understood that their role in society, shaping its culture, encouraging it along a proper course, developing the national narrative. The academy knew that its life was intricately linked to that of the society it lived in. It was the highest level of that society and had a responsibility to it. Israeli academics who call on European powers to invade the country to "save it from itself," those who call the country "Nazi," those who call for boycotts of their own country, those who go into "exile" abroad or those who encourage the murder of citizens in the country simply do not view themselves as responsible for the country at large. They are so disconnected from the society that they no longer feel any responsibility to be decent and mature in their rhetoric toward it.
This behavior represents a fundamental breakdown between the academy and the state. Prof. Gad Yair of Hebrew University's Sociology Department has summed up this relationship as follows: "The state without social sciences is ruthless, social sciences without the state are useless." Too many of Israel's academics view themselves as living in a bubble and in that bubble they see no reason not to challenge the very existence of the state.
Whether it is Shlomo Sand denying the existence of the Jewish people or Prof. Yoav Peled calling for a "one-state solution," they place themselves outside the state. Some of them even create a perception of the state that exists only in their mind. Prof. Oren Yiftachel called the state a "white... pure settlement colonial society."
Pure white? Yiftachel changed the ethnicity of 90 percent of Israelis to create a myth of whiteness so that he could irresponsibly act out his fantasy of opposing a new colonialistic apartheid.
A proper relationship between the academy and the state is one in which the academy is part of the state and, as part of it, serves its interests. It is understandable that many academics feel alienated from the state and its activities. They feel the occupation is morally repugnant, that the state isn't living up to their ideals.
But when children don't behave correctly, it is the parents' responsibility to correct this, not scream hysterically that the children are "little Nazis" and leave the house.
Irresponsible parents encourage lawless behavior, their hysterical reactions and bipolar passive aggressive behavior undermine the morality of the children, instead of raising them by setting an example and behaving quietly, decently and with self-control. The Israeli academy is like a parent to the citizenry of the state, but the behavior of some of its members has come to resemble that of spoiled children.
The writer is a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.