Tuesday, August 17, 2010

True Academic Freedom In Israel

by Dan Illouz

Israeli academic institutions seem to be problematic for reasons that sound too similar to those that plague other Western universities. Note this week's firing of Dr. Ran Baratz.

Im Tirtzu recently published a detailed report revealing the troubling academic reality in Israel today. According to the report, students in all of the major universities in Israel have complained of a heavily political academia where opinions which do not follow the post-Zionist or anti-Zionist narrative are often rejected and sometimes even penalized.

After the publication of the report, published at the request of the Knesset’s Education Committee, those academic bodies who were investigated responded with ad hominem attacks and claims which fly in face of the reality on university campuses in Israel. Haifa University said that “Im Tirtzu is an organization which uses McCarthyism to threaten freedom of speech.” The spokesperson of Hebrew University told reporters that: “Hebrew University maintains full freedom of expression.”

Im Tirtzu has never demanded that only its opinions are allowed to be expressed. Rather, we, at Im Tirtzu, demand that all opinions be accepted in the academic discourse. We oppose thought policing of any kind. Our complaints are not about the exposure of students to post-Zionist scholarship, but rather on the lack of exposure to the Zionist opinions. A truly free academic environment should be a marketplace of opinions.

Here are some examples of events which Im Tirtzu is trying to combat:

Rachel Avraham, a student at Ben Gurion University, published two critical academic exposes on the content of a lecture given by Ben Gurion University's Dr. Oren Yiftachel, entitled "Selected Topics in the Geography of the Middle East". After publishing these exposes, Rachel Avraham was summoned by the head of the Geography department, Prof. Avi Rubin, “to discuss the possible ramifications” of her “defamatory” exposes. An email communication between the two was then started. Rachel Avraham felt threatened by the tone and nature of these emails. Fearing she would be discriminated against for having disagreed with her professor, she hired a lawyer to deal with further communications with the university. Defending Rachel Avraham’s right to disagree with her professor is not an affront to Dr. Oren Tiftachel’s right to free speech. It is not McCarthyism. It is nothing other than the defence of free speech.

In November 2009, Professor Nira Hativa, who was responsible for the computerized feedback provided by students to their professors, wrote that “there are a lot of students that complain and report that they feel significantly hurt by the presentation of facts from a perspective which is contrary to their views but that they are worried to express opposing views because they feel such an expression might reflect badly on their marks or other things which professors have control over.”Professor Hativa continued and wrote: “I was exposed to many complaints from students of professors who express extreme leftist positions in their lectures and attack the State of Israel, the Israel Defence Forces, the Zionist movement and other, even worse, things”.

A PhD student at Hebrew University testified that he was once told that “anything “right of Meretz” was best not spoken aloud or it would have a serious detrimental impact on my career in Israeli academia”.

By now, one can clearly see that Zionist students have many reasons to fear publicly stating their opinions. Our full report contains countless other examples. On the other hand, there are also a lot of incentives for students to continue their research toeing the line to the post-Zionist narrative. For example:

Ms. Tal Nitzan received a distinction from the Israeli Council for Sociology for her paper that claimed that IDF soldiers do not rape Palestinian women because they are racist.

Furthermore, some courses require their students go on field activities with extreme leftist organizations such as Machsom Watch and Yesh Din, two organizations which spend much of their time attacking and criticizing the IDF. Some courses even offered students to get paid to work for these organizations in addition to the credits they would received for the course.

A truly free academic environment is one in which all students feel free to express their ideas and where students are exposed a multiplicity of ideas. Unfortunately, many in the academic world feel that freedom of speech simply means that they are allowed to do whatever they want in their classroom, including intimidating students who disagree with them.

We at Im Tirtzu want to restore true academic freedom in Israel – an academic freedom in which all students will be able to express themselves, including Zionist students. It is painful to see that even in the State of Israel, Zionist students are victims of discrimination.

Im Tirtzu will not allow the stifling of academic freedom to become a reality in Israel. We believe that we can transform the dream that is the State of Israel into a more just, more modern, more democratic and more Jewish place. This latest report is just one step forward on that path.

Dan Illouz is Overseas Communications Coordinator for Im Tirtzu, the non affiliated proactive student organization.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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