For a number of years now, the Board of Governors of Tel Aviv University has been embroiled in a debate over the boundary between academic freedom and the right of instructors to engage in political activism including a campaign to promote Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) against Israel. In the past, some TAU professors signed petitions urging the United Nations to send troops to protect Palestinians, or even suggested inviting NATO bombings to compel Israel to give up the territories. A TAU historian has recently written a book asserting that Jews are an “invention” of the Zionist movement and have no rights to Israel because the vast majority of them are descendants of the Khazars, a medieval Turkic tribe whose elite apparently converted to Judaism. A simple Google search indicates that the Khazar theory has been highly popular with anti-Semitics groups in Russia, England and the United States for at least a century. Clothed in academic legitimacy, the book has become a hit in the pro-Palestinian and radical left-wing circles in the West.
These and other activities prompted Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard University law professor who was awarded an honorary degree by TAU, to denounce Israeli academics for helping the international campaign to boycott Israel, for teaching their students “the earth is flat”- style theories and imposing their views in class in ways bordering on harassment. Things came to a head during the 2010 meeting of the TAU Board of Governors when Professor Joseph Klafter, TAU president, refused to bring to a vote a proposal requesting to investigate professors who use the school’s name when advocating for BDS. Mark Tanenbaum, the author of the resolution, resigned claiming that Professor Klafter restricted his freedom of speech.
Recently, Israel Academia Monitor (IAM) has been dragged into this debate after sending a letter to the TAU Board of Governors listing a large number of cases of faculty promoting BDS and other similar issues. In response, Avner Azulay, a member of the TAU Board of Governors sent us the following:
“I disagree with these two or three academics. Their damage is insignificant compared to the de-legitimization and boycotts caused by the government’s policies and the fascist laws passed in the Knesset, as well as the activities of the organizations of your kind. On top of it you have no right to address the Board of Governors of any university. I will inquire if you are authorized and by whom.“
In a second email to IAM, Azulay attacked IAM and NGO Monitor claiming "Nothing academic about them, just cheap tools to serve political parties goals and passing fascist laws in the Knesset." He then went on to ask "in what Western countries can you find such monitors serving the same purpose? Maybe North Korea, Iran?” Furthermore, “Israel has survived 63 years without these monitors and will continue to thrive in spite of them.”
Mr. Azulay, a former Mossad official, is the head of the Mark Rich Foundation in Israel.
We would like to emphasize that Mr. Azulay is wrong on a number of counts. IAM is a non-political group of academics and other concerned citizens who span the political spectrum, not a “cheap tool” serving political parties and helping to bring “fascist laws in Knesset.”
Mr. Azulay should know that other Western democracies have similar academic monitoring groups. Campus Watch, an arm of the Middle East Forum (MEF) in the United States, comes to mind. The MEF is headed by two distinguished professors of Middle East studies, Daniel Pipes and Efraim Karsh from King’s College London. Professor Pipes has testified before Congress and was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve on board of the prestigious U.S. Institute for Peace.
Mr. Azulay seems to be deeply confused about democracy in general and academic freedom in particular; he states that IAM has no right to address TAU board members and threatens to find out “who authorized” this contact. He should know that in Israel concerned citizens can appeal to the authority of their choice without being threatened. On the other hand, in North Korea and Iran, people have no such rights. Mr. Azulay is apparently not aware of the savage persecution of those who dare to speak out against the regime in both countries. It is no coincidence that in Iran, professors and students who advocate for academic freedom are the chief victims of the authorities. Tehran University and other institutions of higher learning have been periodically attacked by paramilitary forces; over the years, hundreds of students have been killed, wounded, tortured and imprisoned.
Mr. Azulay’s comment: “Israel has survived for 63 years without monitors “and is “thriving’” shows profound ignorance of the campaign to delegitimize Israel. This include “legal warfare”, i.e. legal challenges to Israel in the United Nations, the international legal sphere and the U.S. legal system, as well as political challenges on the university campuses where Israel is routinely depicted as an apartheid regime akin to South Africa. TAU academics have taken a leading role in activities that promote delegitimization, boycott and sanctions, a fact that IAM pointed out in its letters and circulars. These TAU academics actions, often in collusion with Palestinian academics, make the work of pro-Israeli advocates difficult. Experts worry that this novel type of legal and political warfare has left Israel perilously isolated in the international community and poses a serious threat to its national security.
Is Mr. Azulay not bothered by the prospect of such threats? Does he imply that the “fascist” Israeli government deserves to be isolated and punished?