Last week, Professor Rivka Carmi, the President of Ben Gurion University, nixed a plan by the Department of Middle East Studies to grant the annual Ben-Gurion University Berelson Prize for Jewish-Arab Understanding of $5100 to the NGO Breaking the Silence. Carmi explained that it is first and foremost the University that picks the recipient and that the Department took the initiative without consulting the authorities. Carmi emphasized that Breaking the Silence is not part of the Israeli consensus and therefore not a candidate.
But Professor Haggai Ram, the head of the Department, told Haaretz that his colleagues voted unanimously to grant the prize to Breaking the Silence because the "public debate has moved “dangerously” toward right-wing extremism." Ram asserted that "Breaking the Silence has been one of the principal targets of this onslaught, and that "we believe that advancing Jewish-Arab relations requires confronting the public with the truth of the occupation – which may not be pleasant to hear, but constitutes a fundamental condition for reconciliation between the two peoples.”
Not surprising, condemnation of Carmi poured from the radical left. One critique even suggested that Carmi's decision will boost the calls for boycott. "She appears to have shot herself in the foot with the decision to cancel the prize to Breaking the Silence. It not only undermines the academic independence and freedom of the university, setting a dangerous precedent for further restrictions and the silencing of those who oppose Israeli policies, but it also is constitutes an effective boycott of Breaking the Silence, something she has categorically rejected. Carmi has — perhaps unintentionally — boosted the legitimacy of boycotts in general as a tool, and academic boycott in particular, by endorsing it herself in order to keep her institution afloat."
Carmi's problems with the radical faculty are of Ben Gurion University own making. BGU has allowed academics-activists to masquerade as bona fide scholars for too long. In 2011, the Council of Higher Education international quality assessment committee found the Department of Politics and Government to be below standard because of a preponderance of critical, neo-Marxist scholars. The committee evaluating the Sociology Department made similar observations.
Haggai Ram has been a par excellence of an academic-activist. His scholarship is rather meager and his prose obtuse. For instance in the introduction to his book Iranophobia Ram wrote "that Israeli scholarly research on the Middle East and Iran has remained impervious to innovative analytical tools and paradigms used in other disciplines of the humanities and the social sciences that are reminiscent of the 'epistemic self-sufficiency' of Orientalism as a mode of knowledge production." For those who the writing incomprehensible, Ram wants Middle East Studies in Israel to match the neo-Marxist, critical scholarship of his colleagues in the departments of Politics & Government and Sociology.
As for the nuclear program in Iran, Ram found it to be a fabrication of the Israeli government which was looking to divert attention from its subjugation of the Mizrahim and lower classes: "the Israeli government, academia, and media were disseminating distorted images of Iran that are informed by the [Israeli] state's security and ethnocentric concerns."
Ram has never let facts to deflect his strongly-held beliefs. Needless to say, he probably did not bother to read the 2011 report of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran's nuclear program; after a painstaking analysis the Safeguard Division of the Agency concluded that Iran had an advanced enrichment capacity and conducted numerous experiments to weaponize its uranium stocks. For the same reason, he is probably not aware that in signing the 2015 Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action with the international community, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its enrichment capacity. The question that Ram needs to answer now is: if Iran's nuclear program was a figment of Israeli imagination, what is it that the Iranians are dismantling?
It is not clear why Ram, who was considered the "Iran expert" in the Department, decided to switch fields. He now describes himself as an expert in Hashish. In his 2016 research he explains: "I begin by examining how hashish traffickers responded to these new conditions of control and prohibition, showing that their persistence in maintaining the illicit trade presented the authorities with unforeseen challenges. I then provide a vista into Mandatory Palestine's consuming subjects and the kinds of colonial knowledge about cannabis which helped to raise critical, racial-cum-cultural, awareness of these people, as well as to deter Jews from consuming the forbidden substance. As opposed to other regions of the British Empire (most notably India and Egypt), the history of cannabis in Palestine has not been told before."
It is not clear why the taxpayers have to sponsor his new research interest and who in the department is now doing research on Iran, a subject that Ram was apparently hired to do. This question needs to be answered by the BGU authorities that allowed shoddy academic practices to continue for so long.
Israeli University Nixes Decision to Grant Prize to Breaking the Silence
The anti-occupation NGO was to get a prize for Jewish-Arab understanding until Ben-Gurion University's president overturned her department head's decision.
Or Kashti Jun 26, 2016 10:34 PM
In an exceptional move, the president of Ben-Gurion University recently canceled a department’s decision to grant an award to the Breaking the Silence organization.
The Berelson Prize for Jewish-Arab Understanding, which is worth 20,000 shekels ($5,100), is granted annually by the Middle East Studies department to individuals or organizations that have contributed to such understanding. But in response to the decision of BGU President Prof. Rivka Carmi to overturn the decision to grant the award to Breaking the Silence, department head Prof. Haggai Ram said the department has decided not to give the prize to anyone this year.
Carmi’s decision shocked and outraged many people on campus. One termed it “unacceptable intervention and capitulation to an anti-democratic atmosphere,” while another said that “nobody believed the university administration would cancel the award.”
The university said the prize “is granted by the university, not a particular department,” and the department made its decision “without consulting the university president, who believes the organization doesn’t meet the criteria for the prize. This is an organization that isn’t in the national consensus, and giving it the prize is liable to be interpreted as an appearance of political bias.”
Past recipients of the prize, which has been granted for 25 years, include Egyptian playwright Ali Salem; Palestinian poet in Israel, Siham Daoud; the Parents Circle – Families Forum, an organization of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families; Physicians for Human Rights; a bilingual school in the Galilee; Sikkuy – the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality; and the Andalus publishing house.
This year, the department voted unanimously to give the prize to Breaking the Silence. Ram said it did so because the public debate has moved “dangerously” toward right-wing extremism, and “Breaking the Silence has been one of the principal targets of this onslaught.” Moreover, he said, “We believe that advancing Jewish-Arab relations requires confronting the public with the truth of the occupation – which may not be pleasant to hear, but constitutes a fundamental condition for reconciliation between the two peoples.”
The university has never intervened in the department’s decision before. Sources familiar with Carmi's thinking said she argued that the NGO, Breaking the Silence, is different from previous prize recipients.
Late last month, the university held a seminar on “Whistleblowing through the Ages,” and two representatives of Breaking the Silence were invited to participate on one of the panels. In that case, Carmi defended the decision against right-wing critics.
“It could be that for the university administration, granting the prize — which was supposed to happen right after the seminar — was a step too far,” one campus source said. The prize was supposed to be awarded tomorrow at a department seminar on freedom of expression.
Another source said that “In internal discussions, university administrators express a similar view toward Breaking the Silence as that held by most of the public ... There’s also pressure from donors, but that has an impact because it falls on fertile ground. The decision to cancel the award was an attempt to send a message that the university won’t agree to ‘subversive’ initiatives like this. It’s very sad.”
Breaking the Silence said it regretted that the administration “chose to capitulate to political pressure and joined the campaign of incitement and persecution against soldiers and combatants who broke the silence about what’s happening in the territories.” Noting that the prize was endowed in memory of Yitzhak Rabin, it said that deeming Breaking the Silence unworthy of the award because it isn’t in “the national consensus” was inappropriate, because Rabin himself “never hesitated to act on his beliefs even in defiance of the consensus.”
As for the claim that the prize could be interpreted as political bias, “The administration’s decision to disqualify it is itself political bias,” the organization said.
The NGO, which was founded in 2004 by a group of soldiers who served in Hebron, has as its express goal "to bring an end to the occupation." It is made up of veteran combatants who have served in the Israel Defense Forces and choose to expose the reality of everyday life in West Bank.
Introduction to Iranophobia by Haggai Ram
The Unthinkable: Integrating Israel Into The Middle East.
Although I did not know it at the time, the idea of writing this book was born in my mind in 1996. In March of that year I gave an interview to Ha'aretz Weekly Supplement. Titled “The Demon Is Not So Terrible,” the interview immediately sparked a public uproar that nearly cost me my academic career. In that interview I essentially suggested (a) that the Israeli government, academia, and media were disseminating distorted images of Iran that are informed by the state's security and ethnocentric concerns; (b) that Israeli scholarly research on the Middle East and Iran has remained impervious to innovative analytical tools and paradigms used in other disciplines of the humanities and the social sciences that are reminiscent of the 'epistemic self-sufficiency' of Orientalism as a mode of knowledge production; and (c) that in spite of dominant Israeli conceptions to the contrary, Iran and Israeli were, in fact, similar in that they were both founded, among other things, on the interpenetration of the secular and the religious.
As a young and admittedly self-conceited ( but untenured) faculty member at the newly established Department of Middle East Studies in Ben Gurion University, I was completely unprepared for the devastating backlash that would soon follow. A barrage of condemnations coming from various academic and political sources in the printed and electronic media questioning my “intellectual integrity and basic knowledge of facts.” Prof. Avishi Braverman, the university president ( now turned Labor Party politician), demanded my head and let it be known that he would be content with nothing short of my dismissal. Save a handful of colleagues who hailed my “daring attempt to challenge the accepted perceptions in the [Israeli] Middle East Studies establishment,” the message coming from virtually everywhere was loud and clear: “Dr. Ram doesn't represent us.”
Fortunately (for me) I survived the backlash. More to the point, however, it appears that what prompted the scathing outrage against me was not my charge that the boundaries between the Israeli state and Israeli Middle East studies were dangerously porous; many of Israel's Middle East scholars would see nothing wrong with that. Rather, it was my contention that the Israeli and Iranian politics deserve to be studied comparatively or contrapuntally. Consider, for example, how David Menashri – Israel's most prominent expert of Iran and more former teacher at Tel Aviv University – responded to this call of mine:
Dr. Ram's main original contribution is a comparison between Zionism and Khomeinism. I see no fault in such intellectual drills, but we must distinguish between what is important and what is marginal. It is, of course, possible to compare many things, even a mosquito to a helicopter, or a fish to a submarine. But are the two really essentially similar? Compared within the context of their ideational substances, the similarities between Khomeinism and Zionism are marginal. It suffices to read Herzl and Khomeini in order to appreciate how different the two are. Did Zionism aspire to establish a theocratic state ( medinat halacha)?
In this book I take issue with this kind of contemptuous dismissal of the possibility that a comparative study of “Zionism” and “Khomeinism” may be of beneficial value.
For nearly three decades Israelis have understood the enmity between Iran and Israel to be a manifestation of a perceived opposition between a backward, Islamic, religious, and Oriental dictatorship, on the one hand, and a modern, Jewish, secular, and Western democracy on the other hand. Others have come to view this enmity as a manifestation of a strategic rivalry for power and prominence in the Middle East. In this book, however, I argue that Israeli understandings of Israel's conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran ( IRI) were not necessarily transparent reflections of the politics of difference. Nor were they necessarily expressions of strategic concerns about the Iranian regime's drive to have the Jewish state 'wiped off the map”. Rather, they were at least as much (perhaps more?) concerned with what historian David Cannadine described in the context of the British Empire's relations with its overseas possessions as the 'construction of affinities'. Put differently, these understandings were rooted in the intimidating presumption that Iran was the same as Israel, that the two states were, in fact, inexorably entwined by common trends and phenomena. This presumption, in turn, has yielded reactions by the Israeli media, the public, and agents of social control that can be collectively described as a displaced or exaggerated “moral panic”.
Israeli anxieties about Iran are indeed linked to, and cannot be (properly) examined in isolation of domestic ethnic and religious challenges to the nature and outlook of the Jewish state. Still, because these challenges might imperil neat and homogeneous conceptualizations of Israel as a “Europe in the Middle East”, many Israeli scholars insist on examining them in relation to the countries of Euro-America. By leapfrogging over the immediate Middle East, they have in effect joined, intentionally or unintentionally, the enterprise of calibrating an insurmountable gap between the Jewish state and its Arab and Muslim neighbors. Historian Benny Morris provides a striking example of this, contending that the Middle East is in reality “a world whose values are different from ours. A world in which human life doesn't have the same value as it does in the West, in which freedom, democracy, openness and creativity are alien.”...
It was against this backdrop that I set out to write this book. Disenchanted with the exaggerated or misplaced anxieties about Iran among Israelis, and, equally so, about the overall failure of much of literature to make sense of the Israel-Iranian conflict outside the realm of geopolitics, in this book I set out to inquire into the cultural logics at work behind Israel's “Iran Psychosis. While there are many good reasons for the Jewish state to be apprehensive of the Islamic Republic, I feel there is also a great deal of irrationality involved in that apprehension, and it is the cultural roots of that irrationality I seek to investigate in this book.
Middle Eastern Studies
Volume 52, Issue 3, 2016
Hashish traffickers, hashish consumers, and colonial knowledge in Mandatory Palestine
Publishing models and article dates explained
Published online: 30 Mar 2016
I examine the extent to which the rise in the early 1900s of international efforts to stamp out or regulate the flow and (ab)use of hashish affected the (under)world of hashish traffickers and hashish consumers in Mandatory Palestine. A crucial phase in the global fight against cannabis, the Mandatory period serves as an excellent arena for exploring the local reverberations triggered by the reversal of the course of ‘the psychoactive revolution’, a revolution that has made drugs pervasive in human societies from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. I begin by examining how hashish traffickers responded to these new conditions of control and prohibition, showing that their persistence in maintaining the illicit trade presented the authorities with unforeseen challenges. I then provide a vista into Mandatory Palestine's consuming subjects and the kinds of colonial knowledge about cannabis which helped to raise critical, racial-cum-cultural, awareness of these people, as well as to deter Jews from consuming the forbidden substance. As opposed to other regions of the British Empire (most notably India and Egypt), the history of cannabis in Palestine has not been told before. By drawing on previously untapped archival, press and literary sources, this article seeks to rectify this lacuna.
Published online: 30 Mar 2016
* Department of Middle East Studies, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beersheba, Israel