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The ‘guardians’ of Israeli academia

haaretzby Benjamin Pogrund, 23 October 2009

Israeli academics are being watched. Vigilantes check what they say or write – and, if they are judged “anti-Israel,” incite donors to the universities and colleges where they teach to act against them. Students are encouraged to spy on their teachers and to report what they say.

Academics on the left are the targets. They are vilified as “Israel’s academic fifth column” and “our inner scourge.” They are called “traitors” and are accused of “treasonous betrayal” and of wanting “to suck up to and be accepted by the enemy.”

One vigilante group is Israel Academia Monitor (IAM) started five years ago by the American-born Dana Barnett. Another is IsraCampus, which does not reveal who its organizers are although many of its articles are written by Seth J. Frantzman, also from the United States.

Prof. David Newman, of the department of politics and government at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), who has been a target for attack, warns: “The academic McCarthyism of the right endangers Israeli democracy and society. It threatens the very basis of freedom of speech.”

Newman, who has spent the past three years working informally on behalf of Israel’s universities against the academic boycott attempts in Europe, sees these so-called watchdog groups as causing as much harm to Israel’s academic community and reputation as the Israel boycotters themselves.

Both IAM and IsraCampus say they are modeled after Campus Watch in the United States, which is controversial for its monitoring of Middle East studies at American universities and of academics who are critical of Israel.

Barnett sends out near-daily e-mails fingering and quoting named academics, and decides when protest and dissent are “anti-Israel.” Every e-mail ends by asking the recipient: “Are you a donor to Israeli universities? Learn about what is happening on Israeli campuses.” She urges donors to know “what is being done with your gifts and generosity” and to “speak about anti-Israel Israeli academics when you are in touch with university officials.” She does not say who funds her work. She has acknowledged in a newspaper interview that “most of them are from abroad,” and claims they are “Zionists with a love of Israel.”

The vigilantes totally attack any boycotts from abroad of Israel. But they want to use boycotts against the Israeli academics they condemn. They do not seem aware of the obvious contradiction in their stance.

Inevitably, Dr. Neve Gordon, the BGU political science lecturer who has been in the headlines for urging a boycott of Israel, is a particular target for them: IAM has for weeks now been soliciting signatures for a petition urging that he be dismissed as chair of the politics and government department and from any university committee, that all his courses be made electives rather than required, and that he be denied travel and research funding.

The response from international academic networks has not been long in coming. Respected academics throughout the world are said to have written letters to BGU President Rivka Carmi and to the Israel Academy of Sciences, protesting this attempt to infringe on the freedom of speech.

The vigilantes have also gone after Israeli academics who expressed support for Gordon.

Their net of condemnation is cast wide, and includes: Iaroslav Youssim, of the School of Social Work of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who was listed after circulating an invitation to a weekly “Stand Up for Jerusalem” march against Israel’s occupation policies in the city. Dr. Kobi Snitz, professor of mathematics at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, is listed for having served 20 days’ in jail for trying to prevent soldiers from demolishing a house in a Palestinian village as well as other activities, such as “support[ing] Palestinian struggle against Israel.” Also Dr. David Shulman, of the Hebrew University department of comparative religions, was named after writing about a court case in which colleagues were acquitted on charges of disorderly behavior during a protest. Former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former head of Tel Aviv University’s history department, is listed for his review, in Foreign Affairs magazine, of Benny Morris’ history of the 1948 war.

IAM got itself into a knot, however, over the call by Tova Rosen, of BGU’s Hebrew literature department, and many others for civil disobedience against three antidemocratic Knesset bills. IAM acknowledged that civil disobedience was a “time-honored expression of protest in democracies.” But in classic McCarthyite style it added a dark warning that the “Communist Party” was involved in this particular case – even though it said it did not know what role, if any, the party played.

IsraCampus has what it calls a “Rogues Gallery,” with scores of names. Who are these dangerous people? They include many of Israel’s most distinguished intellectuals: Amoz Oz (“and his ilk”) features, as does historian and Haaretz journalist Tom Segev (“anti-Israel Israeli”), plus educator and feminist Dr. Alice Shalvi and Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, of the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Law.

No doubt the vigilantes view themselves as super-patriots serving Israel’s interests. The opposite is true. They are dangerous cranks. The crude censorship they use to shut up academics runs counter to the most cherished beliefs about freedom of speech in Western democracies. They undermine Israel’s status as a democracy.

Benjamin Pogrund is a South African-born journalist who learned about academic freedom as a student, fighting against the imposition of apartheid on universities.

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