McCarthy in Israel

On May 31, I joined some 50 students and faculty members who gathered outside Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to demonstrate against the Israeli military assault on the flotilla carrying humanitarian aid toward Gaza. In response, the next day a few hundred students marched toward the social-sciences building, Israeli flags in hand. Amid the nationalist songs and pro-government chants, there were also shouts demanding my resignation from the university faculty.

One student even proceeded to create a Facebook group whose sole goal is to have me sacked. So far over 2,100 people (many of them nonstudents) have joined. In addition to death wishes and declarations that I should be exiled, the site includes a call on students to spy on me during class. “We believe,” ends a message written to the group, “that if we conduct serious and profound work, we can, with the help of each and every one of you, gather enough material to influence … Neve Gordon’s status at the university, and maybe even bring about his dismissal.”

Such personal attacks are part of a much broader assault on Israeli higher education and its professors. Two recent incidents exemplify the protofascist logic that is being deployed to undermine the pillars of academic freedom in Israel, while also revealing that the assault on Israeli academe is being backed by neoconservative forces in the United States.

The first incident involves a report published by the Institute for Zionist Strategies, in Israel, which analyzed course syllabi in Israeli sociology departments and accused professors of a “post-Zionist” bias. The institute defines post-Zionism as “the pretense to undermine the foundations of the Zionist ethos and an affinity with the radical leftist stream.” In addition to the usual Israeli leftist suspects, intellectuals like Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm also figure in as post-Zionists in the report.

The institute sent the report to the Israel Council for Higher Education, which is the statutory body responsible for Israeli universities, and the council, in turn, sent it to all of the university presidents. Joseph Klafter, president of Tel-Aviv University, actually asked several professors to hand over their syllabi for his perusal, though he later asserted that he had no intention of policing faculty members and was appalled by the report.

A few days later, the top headline of the Israeli daily Haaretz revealed that another right-wing organization, Im Tirtzu (If You Will It), had threatened Ben-Gurion University, where I am a professor and a former chair of the government and politics department. Im Tirtzu told the university’s president, Rivka Carmi, that it would persuade donors to place funds in escrow unless the university took steps “to put an end to the anti-Zionist tilt” in its politics and government department. The organization demanded a change “in the makeup of the department’s faculty and the content of its syllabi,” giving the president a month to meet its ultimatum. This time my head was not the only one it wanted.

President Carmi immediately asserted that Im Tirtzu’s demands were a serious threat to academic freedom. However, Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar, who is also chairman of the Council for Higher Education, restricted his response to a cursory statement that any move aimed at harming donations to universities must be stopped. Mr. Sa’ar’s response was disturbingly predictable. Only a few months earlier, he had spoken at an Im Tirtzu gathering, following its publication of a report about the so-called leftist slant of syllabi in Israeli political-science departments. At the gathering, he asserted that even though he had not read the report, its conclusions would be taken very seriously.

Although the recent scuffle seems to be about academic freedom, the assault on the Israeli academe is actually part of a much wider offensive against liberal values. Numerous forces in Israel are mobilizing in order to press forward an extreme-right political agenda.

They have chosen the universities as their prime target for two main reasons. First, even though Israeli universities as institutions have never condemned any government policy—not least the restrictions on Palestinian universities’ academic freedom—they are home to many vocal critics of Israel’s rights-abusive policies. Those voices are considered traitorous and consequently in need of being stifled. Joining such attacks are Americans like Alan M. Dershowitz, who in a recent visit to Tel-Aviv University called for the resignations of professors who supported the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli goods and divestment from Israeli companies until the country abides by international human-rights law. He named Rachel Giora and Anat Matar, both tenured professors at Tel Aviv University, as part of that group.

Second, all Israeli universities depend on public funds for about 90 percent of their budget. This has been identified as an Achilles heel. The idea is to exploit the firm alliance those right-wing organizations have with government members and provide the ammunition necessary to make financial support for universities conditional on the dissemination of nationalist thought and the suppression of “subversive ideas.” Thus, in the eyes of those right-wing Israeli organizations, the universities are merely arms of the government.

And, yet, Im Tirtzu and other such organizations would not have been effective on their own; they depend on financial support from backers in the United States. As it turns out, some of their ideological allies are willing to dig deep into their pockets to support the cause.

The Rev. John C. Hagee, the leader of Christians United for Israel, has been Im Tirtzu’s sugar daddy, and his ministries have provided the organization with at least $100,000. After Im Tirtzu’s most recent attack, however, even Mr. Hagee concluded that it had gone overboard and decided to stop giving funds. The Hudson Institute, a neoconservative think tank that helped shape the Bush administration’s Middle East policies, has funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Institute for Zionist Strategies over the past few years, and was practically its only donor. For Christians United and the Hudson Institute, the attack on academic freedom is clearly also a way of advancing much broader objectives.

The Hudson Institute, for example, has neo-imperialist objectives in the Middle East, and a member of its Board of Trustees is in favor of attacking Iran. Christian United’s eschatological position (whereby the Second Coming is dependent on the gathering of all Jews in Israel), includes support for such an attack. The scary partnership between such Israeli and American organizations helps reveal the true aims of this current assault on academic freedom: to influence Israeli policy and eliminate the few liberal forces that are still active in the country. The atmosphere within Israel is conducive to such intervention.

Nonetheless, Im Tirtzu’s latest threat backfired, as did that of the Institute for Zionist Strategies’ report; the assaults have been foiled for now. The presidents of all the universities in Israel condemned the reports and promised never to bow down to this version of McCarthyism.

Despite those declarations, the rightist organizations have actually made considerable headway. Judging from comments on numerous online news sites, the populist claim that the public’s tax money is being used to criticize Israel has convinced many readers that the universities should be more closely monitored by the government and that “dissident” professors must be fired. Moreover, the fact that the structure of Israeli universities has changed significantly over the past five years, and that now most of the power lies in the hands of presidents rather than the faculty, will no doubt be exploited to continue the assault on academic freedom. Top university administrators are already stating that if the Israeli Knesset approves a law against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement for Palestine, the law will be used to fire faculty members who support the movement.

More importantly, there is now the sense among many faculty members that a thought police has been formed—and that many of its officers are actually members of the academic community. The fact that students are turning themselves into spies and that syllabi are being collected sends a chilling message to faculty members across the country. I, for one, have decided to include in my syllabi a notice restricting the use of recording devices during class without my prior consent. And many of my friends are now using Gmail instead of the university e-mail accounts for fear that their correspondence will in some way upset administrators.

Israeli academe, which was once considered a bastion of free speech, has become the testing ground for the success of the assault on liberal values. And although it is still extremely difficult to hurt those who have managed to enter the academic gates, those who have not yet passed the threshold are clearly being monitored.

I know of one case in which a young academic was not hired due to his membership in Courage to Refuse, an organization of reserve soldiers who refuse to do military duty in the West Bank. In a Google and Facebook age, the thought police can easily disqualify a candidate based on petitions signed and even online “friends” one has. Israeli graduate students are following such developments, and for them the message is clear.

While in politics nothing is predetermined, Israel is heading down a slippery slope. Israeli academe is now an arena where some of the most fundamental struggles of a society are being played out. The problem is that instead of struggling over basic human rights, we are now struggling over the right to struggle.

Neve Gordon is the author of Israel's Occupation and can be reached through his website. Read other articles by Neve.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. hayate said on August 30th, 2010 at 11:18am #

    It’s difficult to imagine there is any academic freedom at all left in israel, given the rapid growing, fascist state of mind there. Israeli is the nazi Germany of this century. If you notice thetactics used against Gordon, they are exactly the same as those used against american colleges and professors to enforce the zionist’s mandated fascism. These people act exactly like nazis did.

  2. klaatu said on August 30th, 2010 at 9:15pm #

    And the situation is little or no better in the U.S., as Dr. Finkelstein and many others can bear witness. McCarthyism is not dead, it just wears the name of “patriot” (falsely). And the Zio-military-industrial-media-banker complex is propelling it forward. The people are being manipulated but not informed.

  3. 3bancan said on August 30th, 2010 at 11:00pm #

    Here’s another highlight on the nazis of our time:

    How to Kill Goyim and Influence People: Israeli Rabbis Defend Book’s Shocking Religious Defense of Killing Non-Jews (with Video)
    Max Blumenthal

  4. mary said on August 31st, 2010 at 1:49pm #

    These statistics give insight into the continuing horror of the Occupation. Men, women and children are arrested and imprisoned. Some even die in prison.

    I have just been reading about the treatment of this 16 year old boy, Mohammed.

    On 6 February 2010 Mohammad Halabiyeh, a 16 year-old Palestinian boy was arrested by the Israeli Border Police, in his hometown of Abu Dis. During the arrest operation, Mohammad broke his left leg, just above the ankle. Nonetheless, the soldiers beat him all over his body and intentionally kicked his injured leg. Torture and ill-treatment continued for five consecutive days following his arrest and reached its peak at the Hadassah hospital, where the Israeli soldiers pushed syringes into the boy’s hand and leg multiple times, covered his mouth with adhesive tape, punched Mohammad in the face, hit him in the abdomen with a stick and deprived him of sleep in an attempt to deter the boy from reporting the ill-treatment to the Israeli police. Mohammad was undeterred and made an official statement to his interrogator in which he attempted to describe the abuse and torture he was subjected to, even after the other interrogators threatened him with killing and sexual abuse. Mohammad is currently tried before the Israeli military courts on five charges related to throwing Molotov cocktails. He remains in Ofer prison in a section with adult prisoners. The next hearing in Mohammad’s trial is scheduled for 6 September 2010.

    Addameer condemns Mohammad’s torture and ill-treatment at the hands of Israeli authorities as a violation of absolute prohibitions against these measures in international law, violations that are made all the more heinous due to Mohammad’s young age. Moreover, Addameer remains very concerned about the legitimacy of Mohammad’s ongoing trial before the Israeli military courts, as it remains clear that these courts operate in blatant disregard for fundamental international fair trial standards and lack any sort of meaningful protection for child detainees.

    Addameer therefore calls for the charges against Mohammad to immediately be dropped, for those responsible for his torture and ill-treatment to be investigated and prosecuted. Addameer also calls the international community to pressure Israel to conduct a thorough and impartial criminal investigation into the conduct of the soldiers who tortured and abused Mohammad Halabiyeh and bring the perpetrators to justice. At the same time, Addameer contends that it is very unlikely that such an investigation will be initiated without the needed political and diplomatic pressure given that the Israeli authorities have consistently failed to investigate and indict its soldiers involved in criminal offenses against Palestinian civilians in the OPT.

  5. mary said on August 31st, 2010 at 2:02pm #

    Chris Floyd writes movingly on the loss of a little girl’s life in Gaza and the disappearance of an 11 year old boy left in the care of the UK military in Iraq.

    These are the innocents in the wars. NO child should be harmed.

    Innocent Executioners: An Illustration of the Principles of Western Civilization in the Modern World

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain said on September 1st, 2010 at 2:38am #

    A fine piece, by Floyd, as ever.I was reminded,as I am,every day,every hour,of just how unrepentantly,arrogantly evil the Zionazis and their allies in wickedness are when I heard that fiend, Blair,on the radio this morning. I doubt that there could be a plainer condemnation out of its own mouth of any diabolical creature than his observations that, while he did not resile from his role in the aggression in Iraq, he did ‘regret’ banning fox-hunting.
    Possibly the weight of the millions he helped kill and the years of posing as a moral human while,in fact,being an utterly callous psychopath,has unhinged his mind. I wish I shared his ‘Christian’ faith, in him a narcissistic reflection of his own intense self-adoration, because then I would confidently expect that he would burn in Hell, forever. I visited Padova recently, and saw the magnificent Giotto murals in the Scrivegni Chapel. I imagined Blair et al suffering as the wicked do in the Last Judgment,the ingestion then excretion of some by the Devil being an appropriate fate in his case. There also was the depiction of Scrivegni himself, a damned usurer, dressed in the penitent’s violet, attempting to evade his just desserts by buying his way out of damnation. Blair donating the loose change of his book earnings to the returned soldiers came immediately to mind.
    Then, of course, ever mindful that his wealth depends on his Zionazi controllers’ continued good will,he launched into a series of lies concerning Iran, recommending another military aggression. Apparently his bloodlust is unslakeable, but that’s how the Zionazis prefer their stooges-just like themselves.

  7. mary said on September 1st, 2010 at 4:02am #

    Another psychopath spoke in Amerikka last night Mulga. Goebbels was an amateur in comparison to Blair and Obama. I am keeping the radio and TV switched off all day in case I hear anything about or from Blair on the day his execrable memoirs are released and big sell by those who aided his wars (Marr, The Guardian, The Times) commences.

    Some samples –

    The Americans who have served in Iraq completed every mission they were given. *They defeated a regime that had terrorized its people.* Together with Iraqis and coalition partners who made huge sacrifices of their own, our troops fought block by block to help Iraq seize the chance for a better future. They shifted tactics to protect the Iraqi people, trained Iraqi Security Forces, and took out terrorist leaders. Because of our troops and civilians — and because of the resilience of the Iraqi people — Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain.

    So tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country.
    Ending this war is not only in Iraq’s interest — it’s in our own. *The United States has paid a huge price to put the future of Iraq in the hands of its people.* We have sent our young men and women to make enormous sacrifices in Iraq, and spent vast resources abroad at a time of tight budgets at home. We’ve persevered because of a belief we share with the Iraqi people — a belief that out of the ashes of war, a new beginning could be born in this cradle of civilization. Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility. Now, it’s time to turn the page.

    These are Bill Blum’s magnificent words from his latest Anti Empire Report

    Bill Blum on Iraq ‘exit’

    “…no American should be allowed to forget that the nation of Iraq, the society of Iraq, have been destroyed, ruined, a failed state. The Americans, beginning 1991, bombed for 12 years, with one excuse or another; then invaded, then occupied, overthrew the government, killed wantonly, tortured … the people of that unhappy land have lost everything — their homes, their schools, their electricity, their clean water, their environment, their neighborhoods, their mosques, their archaeology, their jobs, their careers, their professionals, their state-run enterprises, their physical health, their mental health, their health care, their welfare state, their women’s rights, their religious tolerance, their safety, their security, their children, their parents, their past, their present, their future, their lives … More than half the population either dead, wounded, traumatized, in prison, internally displaced, or in foreign exile … The air, soil, water, blood and genes drenched with depleted uranium … the most awful birth defects … unexploded cluster bombs lie in wait for children to pick them up … an army of young Islamic men went to Iraq to fight the American invaders; they left the country more militant, hardened by war, to spread across the Middle East, Europe and Central Asia … a river of blood runs alongside the Euphrates and Tigris … through a country that may never be put back together again.”