Academic Freedom in Israel: A Comparative Perspective
Professor Ofira Seliktar
The executive summary is based on the first systematic and detailed report of how Israel’s version of academic freedom functions in comparison to three key Western nations - Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States- that have informed its evolution.
The full report will be available soon.
Neo-Marxist, critical scholarship in the West has acquired a substantial following in liberal arts (humanities and social sciences) departments in Israeli universities. Known in Israel as post-Zionism, it characterizes Zionism as a colonial-imperialist movement and views its progeny- the State of Israel- as a colonial-apartheid state. Alternatively, Israel is presented as a Nazi-like state and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are accused of Nazi-like behavior in the territories. Post Zionist scholars offer courses that, for most part, do not produce a balanced view of the issues of the issues involved.
Mixing academics and political activism, these professors have pursued robust efforts to compel Israel to withdraw from the territories or to accept return of Palestinian refugees, thereby creating a bi-national Jewish-Palestinian state. They have assumed leadership roles in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, have launched international petition drives condemning the IDF for war crimes, and have even attempted to initiate litigation against individual IDF commanders.
Government and university authorities have been reluctant to react because of the prevalent notion that academic freedom protects faculty, both in intramural matters and in extramural speech and action. Indeed, radical scholars and their liberal defenders in the academy and media have warned about the specter of McCarthyism. No matter how justifiable, they assert that imposing any limits would set back Israel’s standing in the academic world and put it at odds with the standards of academic freedom common in the West.
This study analyzes how academic freedom is exercised in Israel, and contrasts it with the environment in three countries that have shaped its higher education system: Germany, United Kingdom and the United States. Although virtually all Israeli universities are public and resemble the German and British model, the United States has both public (state) and private institutions; therefore, American references are only to public institutions.
Academic freedom is an enormously broad, complex and controversial concept; it is rooted in the pedagogical model of higher education popularized by Wilhelm von Humboldt, the founder of Berlin University - the first prominent secular, public university in Germany. He argued that—in the sciences in general and in the liberal arts in particular—academic freedom was needed to investigate and to reason, before one could determine truth. In addition to granting professors freedom, students were guaranteed the freedom to enjoy a balanced education, together forming the key concept of the classroom as a marketplace of ideas.
Academic freedom in the Humboldtian sense provides universities a substantial measure of institutional autonomy. The rights of individual faculty members are manifest intramurally through unhindered research and instruction, extended to include inviting speakers to participate in on-campus panels and conferences they may be hosting. They are exerted extramurally when they speak off-campus without fear of retaliation by university authorities, activities that are sometimes conflated with the freedom of speech enjoyed by citizens in a democracy (known in the United States as First Amendment rights). Not addressed here are administrative activities by the institution (such as when the university appoints faculty, sets academic standards, establishes ethical responsibilities, and admits students) and by the faculty (such as when professors criticize university authorities, engage in collective bargaining, exhibit whistleblowing, and pursue outside consulting opportunities).
To provide maximum comparative context, three themes are identified in each case-study: (1)—the historical and intellectual background of the concept of academic freedom, (2)—the changes to academic freedom through the ongoing transition to the management university model, and (3)—the discourse regarding how to define appropriate boundaries of academic freedom (intramural and extramural) in dealing with Israel in the Middle East, a key litmus test for exploring what is appropriate in both the intramural and extramural category.
Israeli academics enjoy the most expansive forms of institutional autonomy and individual freedom, far greater than that in the other three nations.
The Humboldtian pedagogical model gave faculty freedom to explore topics and methodologies and—in conjunction with recognition that students had the right to enjoy a balanced education—the classroom became the focal-point of the marketplace of ideas. As state employees, academics were expected to behave circumspectly off-campus. After the politicization of the academy during the Nazi period, the Western allies drafted a Constitution that imposed stringent conditions on both forms of academic freedom. For example, German scholars were not permitted to deny or trivialize the Holocaust or to provide a dramatic revisionist history of World War II.
In the 1980s, universities were asked to become competitive by adopting a more managerial style that mandated adding representatives from the economic and the public sector to decision-making bodies. By limiting institutional autonomy, this management model had also limited the individual freedom of scholars, compelling faculty to take fewer risks both in the classroom and outside of it.
Academic treatment of Israel and the Middle East was influenced by a 2002 study on radical critique of Zionism and Israel. The European Monitoring Center’s (EUMC) that commissioned the study, adopted in 2004 a Working Definition of anti-Semitism. It holds that using double-standards, singling-out Israel, labeling Israel an apartheid state, and comparing Israeli behavior with that of Nazi German – known as ‘nazification of Israel’ - amount to a new form of anti-Semitism.
British universities adopted the Humboldtian model, but security considerations including military and political censorship limited academic freedom during both world wars and, to a certain extent, during the interwar period. Faculty enjoyed a fairly high level of academic freedom (both institutional and individual) in the first decades after World War II that coincided with the expansion of higher education.
Following Thatcher’s economic reforms, however, the system was totally revamped. The 1988 Education Reform Act (ERA) abolished tenure and, through deep financial cuts, forced universities to accept the management model. Quality evaluation of faculty research and teaching were introduced to improve accountability and efficiency. The Bologna Agreement—intended to standardize higher education in Europe—placed a premium on international competiveness. Though faculty tried to fight the management model and warned that limiting freedom would damage the prestige of British universities, Britain became one of the two top competitive destinations (along with Germany) for international students in Europe and beyond. Foreign students are a source of considerable income for the universities that have suffered drastic cuts in state funding.
British universities have become major anti-Israeli venues due to large on-campus Muslim populations and due to strong pro-Palestinian faculty groups such as the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP). BRICUP has driven the University and College Union (UCU) to launch BDS initiatives. Muslim student groups - supported by Arab money- have routinely hosted extremist Islamist and Palestinian speakers. Citing academic freedom, Universities U.K. the umbrella group representing universities has defended their presence.
9/11 and Britain’s own war on terror have limited the ability of radical Islamist lecturers to appear on campus, particularly noting that many homegrown terrorists were radicalized during their studies. Hosting radical events on campus has been restricted by such organizations as The Quilliam Foundation (an anti-extremist group), the Centre for Social Cohesion, Students Rights Groups (projects of the Henry Jackson Society), and Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) rights groups. Working with the MI-5, the government’s Prevent program has notified universities at-risk to experience Islamist radicalization.
Other aspects of anti-Israel speech and activities are tackled by a combination of political and legal efforts. In 2009, the British authorities accepted the EUMC’s Working Definition and the 2010 Equality Act made it possible for Jewish activists to launch legal challenges on the ground that anti-Zionism is a form of hate speech and creates a “hostile environment” for Jewish students. The ongoing legal challenge to the UCU’s resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions has used the same rationale regarding faculty. Should it succeed, the legal action led by the distinguished scholar and jurist Anthony Julius (who defended Deborah Lipstadt against Holocaust-denier David Irving) would remove the protection of academic freedom from radical anti-Israel critique and action.
The baseline American principle of academic freedom combined the Humboldtian ideal and the struggle of faculty against assertive boards of directors. It was enshrined in the 1915 statement of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and revised in 1940; the statement promised a marketplace of ideas and advised faculty to use good judgment in extracurricular speaking. Indeed, AAUP leaders warned that hard-won academic freedom could only be sustained when carefully buttressed by satisfying the correlative duties of balance, objectivity and scientific detachment. The McCarthy period mobilized the AAUP to defend freedom of speech, aided by two Supreme Court rulings that confirmed the First Amendment rights of professors.
The neo-Marxist, critical scholarship movement that engulfed the humanities and social sciences in the 1970s undermined both the Humboldtian model and AAUP guidelines; among others, it denied the possibility of finding social truth and encouraged faculty to mix academics with politics. Liberal arts faculty, in particular, tended to turn their research and classrooms into a platform for social justice advocacy.
Conservatives and neo-conservatives initiated a powerful backlash against this leftist domination of liberal arts, starting in the early 1990s. At the intellectual level, many books exposed what became known as “political correctness” and “illiberal education.” At the organization level, groups such as the National Association of Scholars (NAS), the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) generated substantial pushback. David Horowitz’s Freedom Center advocated for an Academic Bill of Rights, a demand that students should be given a balanced and pluralistic education tacitly promised to transpire in a classroom that served as a marketplace of ideas.
The public sector was especially receptive to demands for balance, inasmuch as taxpayers and their elected representatives were historically considered to be stakeholders in the system. Having been appointed by governors, boards of directors—recruited from the business community with a sprinkle of public and political figures—were stand-ins for the public. Faced with financial shortages, states forced their university systems to adopt the competitive management model, to increase teaching loads, and to provide accounting on how staff members divided their time among different academic functions. With financial pressure mounting, boards have fired presidents who had failed to meet performance expectations. Though tenure and First Amendment rights offer protection, a number of court rulings made it clear that speech and activities that could undermine the university or interfere with the educational process were not encompassed by academic freedom and could justify dismissal. Observers noted that, even during the height of the Vietnam War, there was no call to boycott the United States.
Since the early 1980s, academic discourse on Israel in the Middle East has been increasingly monopolized by neo-Marxist, critical scholarship. Adopted by Edward Said in his immensely popular Orientalism, it was disseminated by members of the powerful Middle East Studies Association (MESA). Said contended that Zionism is a colonial and imperialist movement which dispossessed the native Palestinian population; he and his disciples blamed the introduction of Israel—a colonial entity—for all the ills of the region. In a highly influential corollary, John Esposito and his colleagues in MESA contended that Islam is a peaceful religion; he dismissed warnings about al Qaeda, claiming that, in Osama bin Laden the Jewish lobby acting on behalf of Israel, had unearthed a new bogeyman. Supported by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, numerous Middle East programs built an academic infrastructure for the Said-Esposito view.
The attacks of 9/11 provided an opening for the Middle East Forum headed by Daniel Pipes, one of the most influential critics of the Said-Esposito scholarship. In 2010, Martin Kramer, the then-editor of the Forum’s Middle East Quarterly, published Ivory Towers on Sand; this book argued compellingly that the study of the Middle East had been captured by faddish paradigms and unrealistic theories, thereby poorly-serving American national interests. Kramer’s call to reform Title VI of the federal program underwriting Middle East studies was embraced by Congress. The new 2008 legislation made it harder for Middle East programs receiving federal grants to provide an unbalanced presentation on the subject of Israel in the Middle East.
Title VI, however, was not strong enough to counter the paradigmatic view of Israel as a colonial, racist, fascist, Nazi or apartheid state. Muslim and pro-Palestinian groups invited speakers and organized events (such as Israeli Apartheid Week) that amplified the Zionist negatives. Unlike in Germany and UK, the EUMC’s Working Definition was of little use because Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act did not offer protection to religious minorities, making Jews a non-protected group. A long-term effort to reclassify Jews as an ethnic minority under Title VI, however, has recently succeeded; the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Education determined that Jewish students are a minority entitled to remedies provided by Title VI. Kenneth Marcus, a former head of the OCR, urged universities to adopt the EU definition of anti-Zionism as part of anti-Semitism. Observers consider the new ruling, potentially, to constitute a seismic change in dealing with the issue of Israel in the Middle East; being investigated are complaints against several campuses that had been stalled for years.
The Hebrew University in Jerusalem—the first Jewish university in Palestine to offer liberal arts programs—was a natural setting for the Humboldtian marketplace of ideas; its faculty included a large number of German scholars who had fled Nazi persecution and who were predisposed to adopt their familiar pedagogical method. Instead, Judah Magnes, a prominent American anti-Zionist, used this new academic platform to launch Brit Shalom, a small but highly-influential group that promoted the notion of a bi-national state as opposed to the national Jewish state; to this end, he recruited prominent anti-Zionist academics—including the philosopher Martin Buber—and supplanted objective, balanced discourse with increasingly privileged research and teaching supportive of Brit Shalom’s philosophy.
Magnes, who was funded by a group of wealthy anti-Zionists in America, could easily deflect the efforts of the fledgling authority of the Jewish community in Palestine to impose controls on the university. Under his leadership, the Hebrew University became a truly autonomous institution, thereby creating a uniquely expansive model of academic freedom. Faculty had no correlative duties as articulated by the AAUP or its British or German equivalents. Indeed, before leaving his post in 1948, Magnes urged the faculty to continue functioning as an intellectual res publica, a “priesthood of scholars” looming above national interests. Correlative was his opposition to establishment of applied science departments, lest they undermine his vision of the institution’s intellectual integrity.
Once enshrined within Hebrew University’s culture and practices, this expansive notion became immutable. In 1951, Hebrew University allies in the Knesset blocked legislation introduced by the Labor government of David Ben-Gurion intended to place Israel’s tiny higher education system onto a path that would give the new country a scientific edge. The bill included provisions for a more balanced definition of academic freedom, but was repeatedly rejected. After an unpredicted seven year struggle, the Knesset passed the Higher Education Act in 1958 that guaranteeing maximum institutional autonomy and broad intramural and extramural freedoms. The Hebrew University used its autonomous standing to wage a ferocious battle to block the opening of Tel Aviv University, despite the determination that this centrally-located institution could provide much-needed training for the growing number of high school graduates, a high priority for the new state.
In the aftermath of the Six Day War two Hebrew University professors used the strong individual freedoms to pioneer the Israeli version of ‘nazification of Israel.’ Their comparison between IDF and Nazi behavior led them to declare the existence of “Judeo-Nazism,’ a finding that numerous anti-Semitic groups embraced. The university rejected public pressure to dismiss one of two professors on the grounds of extramural academic freedom; it also denied that he had used university funds to pursue his activism abroad.
This strong sense of institutional autonomy has hampered efforts to bring the higher education system in line with the British management model. In 1997, the Likud government appointed the retired Supreme Court Justice Yaakov Maltz to suggest how to reform the system. In 2000, the Maltz Report (MR) determined that Israeli universities were dysfunctional; encumbered by a dual administrative and academic administration; and hampered by large academic senates that preferred status quo. The MR also concluded that academic freedom of faculty must be balanced by a sense of duties towards students, society and state; extensive reforms included opening universities to oversight by public stakeholders via board membership.
The MR was almost universally denounced by faculty, which viewed it as a power-grab by the government that violated the Higher Education Act. In 2008, the State Comptroller found that significant parts of the MR had not yet been implemented, and more recent assessments corroborate this slow progress. The National Students Union launched its own campaign to force the universities to accept the MR recommendations, especially as they pertain to students. Yet, faculty has resisted the notion that taxpayers and their elected representatives are stakeholders in the higher education system and should have some representation on the boards. Even a limited move toward recruiting leaders with business experience is unpopular; for example, faculty vigorously protested Haifa University’s appointment of a former CEO as its president.
Due to the combination of institutional autonomy and individual freedom, the neo-Marxist critical paradigm flourished. Approximately twenty-five percent of liberal arts faculty are self-avowed Marxist, neo-Marxist or critical scholars, particularly at Ben-Gurion University and—to a lesser degree—at Tel Aviv University. These post-Zionists, having embraced the Saidian approach, have generated voluminous work supporting the accusation that Israel is a colonial, apartheid state, and predisposed to ethnic-cleansing the native Palestinian population. The extensive scholarly network—including journals, presses and visiting faculty positions—has privileged their research and helped to build careers. Anti-Semitic and pro-Palestinian circles value Israeli scholars as they generate legitimacy for their cause; similarly, Israeli academics are welcome in BDS and other anti-Israel activities.
Citing academic freedom, university authorities have been reluctant to move against this activist faculty. Following complaints from two right-wing groups, in 2010, the Council of Higher Education (CHE) passed a resolution mandating balanced education; in 2011, Knesset passed a bill making it illegal to advocate BDS. It is too early to assess the effectiveness of these steps but, to succeed, both need constant and diligent monitoring, a service that university authorities or the state cannot be expected to provide routinely.
Israeli universities—compared to those in Germany, the UK, and the USA—enjoy a high level of institutional autonomy, and their faculties benefit from an expansive conceptualization of individual academic freedom.
The reasons for that are complex. They include the historical-cultural legacy of the Hebrew University, the relative failure of the management model, the virtual absence of pushback efforts (such as those of the neoconservative and conservative movements in Great Britain and United States), and the absence of sympathetic media (e.g., Fox Channel). Above all, there is only a weak sense that the public and its elected representatives should be considered legitimate stakeholders in the system.
Prospects for using legal remedies are limited; Israeli case law discourages court involvement (as opposed to involvement of the Constitutional Court in Germany and America’s judiciary). Although post-Zionist scholars are leaders in creating the brand of research and speech that would qualify as anti-Semitism under the EUMC Working Definition, students in Israel do not qualify for protection under the “hate speech” and “hostile environment” clauses used in the UK and the USA.
Following publication, the 200-page report should trigger academic and public debates.
To the full report