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Israel and Academic Freedom: a Closed Book

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Photo by James Emery | CC BY 2.0

Photo by James Emery | CC BY 2.0

 

You have a 17-year-old daughter… let’s call her Rachel, or perhaps Nadia… raised in a home where dialogue, debate and disagreement have been served as so much a mainstay of the family dinner every night for years. On holidays, it just meant longer and louder arguments with more folks to piss off. Yet, nothing made you prouder. She had flourished in a “safe-zone” where her view and voice did not take a back seat to any others simply because she was young, female or provocative in her thought. It doesn’t get any better than this.

One day the search for the right college begins. Sure, the distance from home and physical layout is important and her personal safety paramount, but that’s just the start. You’ve got this list of grand, impressive, perhaps historical, universities to check out with reputations for not just academic  achievement but with a well settled commitment to free speech and thought; a safe zone… safe from outside intimidation that seeks to limit or suppress how she grows… not just as a student but more important, a human being.

University is intended to be a melting pot, a grand experiment of sorts, to unite the diverse not in “acceptable” uniform thought but in the notion that ideas must be free and robust to be healthy… all ideas… the good, the bad, the uncomfortable. Yet, today, all across  the United States it seems that purity of  thought has become synonymous with the idea of a sound “healthy” education. It’s not by accident that free speech and association is under attack from coast to coast in ways unseen since the academic purges that targeted largely “radical” Jews of the 50’s brought to us by a guy named McCarthy. He too had this notion that good thought must necessarily adhere to a checklist of sanitized ideas. That safe speech and association demanded a line of logic dictated by the powerful and pervasive.

American Bred Academic Repression

The McCarthy era was not the first in this country where petty political or academic demagogues sought to impose their view upon craven institutions of learning to win votes or curry favor with powerful benefactors. In 1832, a member of the University of Virginia’s student Jefferson Society   publicly declared his support for the emancipation of slaves, which led the faculty to declare, “there should be no oration on any distracting question of state or national policy, nor on any point of theological dispute.” He was driven from the school. In 1833, the Board of Trustees of Lane   Theological Seminary in Cincinnati banned an antislavery society formed by students and some of the faculty, declaring that”education must be completed before the young were dismissed for their views.” In 1856, after professor Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick at the University of North Carolina favored the Republican Party, the North Carolina Standard called the party “incompatible with our honor and safety as a people,” and faculty repudiated his views.  After being burned in effigy by students, Hedrick was   fired after refusing to resign or change his anti-slavery views.

By 1917, America had entered the Great War, and the suppression of academic freedom quickly  reached extraordinary levels not to be seen again on college campuses until the recent attack on the BDS Movement.

At that time the New Republic reported more than 20 cases of professors fired because of their refusal to support the war; no doubt many more belief-triggered firings went unreported. In a University of Michigan “War Aims” course, students were warned about “the wild excesses of the revolutionists,” [pgs 165-166] being told that “a surprising number” of them were Jews.

World War I fear-mongering about radicals and seditious speech made repression in academia predictable in years to come, leaving the university community an…“atmosphere… charged with fear.” In 1915 a controversial leftist economist named Scott Nearing was fired from various teaching   positions because of controversial classroom views which challenged child labor and religious and social orthodoxy that went so far as to advocate  “ the ruthless redistribution of property.”

In the 1920s, a journalism professor at Ohio State was fired for treating a coal strike favorably, and pacifist leader John Nevin Sayre was barred from speaking at the University of Oklahoma [pg.166]. A 1920 survey by the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, [pgs. 166-167] “Freedom of Discussion in American Colleges,” found that “an increasing number of schools were (1) prohibiting outside affiliations for political groups, (2) placing increasing restrictions on speakers, and (3) censoring the faculty’s right to express liberal opinions.” Sound familiar?

In the 1930s, liberal professors were under fire in various parts of the United States for a wide range of political stands deemed offensive to conservative university administrators and trustees… much of them race related. Academic  careers were ruined because of “unsound” positions on race relations that violated social norms such as holding teas that included both white and “colored” people and supported granting scholarships to “negro” graduate students.

McCarthy and earlier academic repression destroyed lives and reputations; more important, as a nation, indeed as a people, these purges set us back, dramatically, creating a poisoned environment that forced free thinkers to choose between their beliefs and safety and cost our young dearly as they struggled to  become the leadership of generations to come. If, however, there was a common thread among earlier academic tyranny and politically correct academic dogma it was generally homegrown and imposed. Today’s purity of thought is different. It finds impetus and funding not in the halls of town meetings or domestic politics but in the global view of Israel, a foreign autocracy which seeks to control the narrative and dialogue of our transcendent young in our own country.

Israel’s Influence Today On US Academics

For Israel it’s not enough to invade our lecture halls at prestigious schools such as De Paul, the   University of  Illinois, Oberlin, CUNY or Columbia to drive“controversial” pro-Palestinian academics   of the likes of Finkelstein, Salaita, Karega, Schulman, Massad and Dabashi from college lecterns; or to strong-arm a university such as Berkley to suspend a course that presents a view of settler colonialism at odds with the Zionist narrative. Indeed, now through well funded pro Zionist proxies Israel seeks to  fundamentally redesign those same halls to promote and suit its own geopolitical needs and interests

Recently, from coast to coast, well funded organizations such as the Amcha Initiative and the Canary Mission have labored to intimidate university administrators and faculty in an effort to punish what they call anti-Semitism in the classroom. In the name of acceptable academic freedom, these groups promote an Israeli view of free speech, one where diversity of thought is under constant attack in  the  class rooms and the streets  in  an  effort to silence  Palestinian dissidents and their supporters by one means or another.

The Israeli History of Academic Freedom 

The idea that Israel is indifferent to core principles of free speech and association, and fears an open   exchange of ideas, is a debate without disagreement.  Any conversation about how it views the  importance of academic freedom and the state’s right to control unfettered access to information must, of course, begin with its well documented, indeed unparalleled, history of targeted, often deadly, assaults upon institutions of learning and their students throughout the Occupied Territories.

Israel’s brutal onslaught upon the academic infrastructure of Gaza in 2014 is well known  It’s too recent to forget that in some 50 days of round the clock bombing it completely destroyed 26 primary and secondary schools and damaged another 122, including 75 UNRWA schools. Of Gaza’s 407 kindergartens 133 were damaged and 11 totally destroyed. Four universities sustained significant damage and loss of life among their staff and student populations. In one deliberate attack upon the north Gaza branch of Al Quds Open University, 22 students were killed. Although the exact number of students who were injured or lost their life during the summer of 2014 is unknown, 490 Palestinian children were killed and 3000 wounded. It is believed that 9 academic and administrative staff of higher education institutions were killed and 21 injured, and 421college students killed with 1,128 injured.

In an earlier attack on Gaza’s educational infrastructure in 2009, Israel destroyed 18 schools and damaged 280 out of 641 others, including 14 of its 15 higher education institutions.

Make no mistake about it, Israel views Palestinian education not as a fundamental right but a political impediment, preferring isolated, if not silenced, generations of students to young women and men with the academic ability and experience to challenge it in the market place of ideas at home and abroad.

Thus, between 1988 and 1992 Israel closed, yes closed, all Palestinian higher education institutions during the 1st Intifada, preventing any students and teachers from attending classes, using libraries or obtaining clinical experience.  Although now once again open, institutions of higher education in the occupied West Bank function under a reign of academic intimidation… at times sheer terror… that moves well beyond the border of criminal. As so much the norm, Israel raids universities throughout the West Bank. Among others, Birzeit University, the Arab American University, Polytechnic University and Al Quds University in East Jerusalem have been frequently targeted by the Israeli military which has attacked and arrested students, destroyed university property and equipment and seized student organization materials.

Over the last four years Al Quds University in particular has been a favorite target of marauding Israeli soldiers which have raided its main campus on some three dozen occasions. During these attacks more than 2000 students have been injured, and 12,000 evacuated as soldiers discharged thousands of tear gas canisters and rounds of ammunition. Several hundred students have been seized for “investigation” with many detained without formal charges. To this day some remain isolated under military custody. In the school year of 2013-2014 alone, more than 600 lectures were canceled at Al Quds, with a thousand students withdrawing from active enrollment too traumatized to continue with classes.

Even where Palestinian education has been permitted to proceed without physical assault, Israeli censorship of Palestinian schools is ever present… sanitizing references, symbols and history from texts, sparing no grades including kindergarten, in a readily transparent effort to rewrite a long, well documented and illustrious past. Years ago Israel began the formal process of cleansing written

Palestinian history of signposts it considers contrary to acceptable, controlled education or which it believes pose a “threat” to its unitary supremacist view of the world.

For example, among other things, the logo of the Palestinian Authority has been removed from book covers and all pictures of Palestinian flags removed from textbooks, even in the coloring books for six-year olds. All mention of the Nakba (catastrophe of 1948) and the right of return has been expunged as if a mere figment of the imagination of millions of Palestinians. Poems, songs and stories about the beauty of Palestinian landscapes and villages, the resistance of the first and second Intifadas and Israeli checkpoints have been deleted from all texts, video and audio representations. All mention of Jerusalem as Al Quds has been sanitized along with any note of Israel as an occupation force of the Palestinian capital. The one million plus Palestinians living inside Israel “proper” have been stripped of their identity and go unmentioned as Palestinians anywhere in Israeli controlled education. In middle school textbooks almost an entire history book has been redacted leaving blank pages for students to gaze at, chapters once rich with detail about events from the Balfour declaration of 1917 through the Nakba, as if they too were little more than provocative historical fiction.

Israel’s Attack On Free Speech And Academic Freedom For Jews

In all fairness to Israel, its drive to control the narrative of 68 years of its Occupation and Apartheid has not been limited at all to just Palestinian educational circles.

In March 2011, the Israeli Knesset passed the so-called Nakba law authorizing the Finance Minister to reduce state funding to an institution if it engages in an “activity that is contrary to the principles of the state.” Although ambiguous in its reach, the law did specifically include those that reject “the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and or commemorate Israeli independence as a day of mourning.

Recently Israel’s Education Ministry has disqualified a novel that describes a love story between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man from use by high schools around the country. Among the reasons stated for the banning of  “Borderlife” is the need to safeguard “the identity and the heritage of students in every sector,” and the belief that “intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threatens the separate identity.”

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the strongest art museum in the country, recently canceled an exhibition of works by the Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei which was also going to feature portraits of thousands of Palestinian refugees and refugee camps by Israeli photographer Miki Kratsman.

Inside universities, Jewish students and faculty often police the academic environments acting as so much the monitors of “dissident” professors. To avoid public vilification, job loss, imprisonment, or worse, educators have been known to redact information that might be used to otherwise punish external political groups and activists that oppose government policies. More than once academic purity has driven some of Israel’s most respected Jewish scholars from prominent teaching positions. Thus famed Professor and author Ilan Pappe who supports the academic boycott of Israel was himself boycotted at Haifa University. After receiving several death threats and condemnation by the Knesset, he moved his work to the University of Exeter in 2008. Professor Ariella Azoulay of Bar-Ilan University was denied tenure because of her “controversial” political associations. And in what can only be described as an effort to silence political dissent and opposition from an entire department at Ben Gurion University, the Council for Higher Education moved, albeit unsuccessfully, to close its politics and government department because it had faculty accused of being left-wing.

Elsewhere the freedom of expression of largely Jewish students has been impaired. In one case, Haifa University, with the support of the student union, prohibited a group of students from holding a demonstration to mark the first anniversary of Operation Cast Lead. In a similar case, it prohibited a demonstration against events surrounding the flotilla from Turkey to the Gaza Strip. In a  third instance, the NRG-Maariv website alleged that Tel Aviv University prevented a reporter from a regional radio station in “Judea” and “Samaria” from covering a conference on the subject of the Nakba.

Students at a number of Israeli universities report that often they cannot receive authorization for activities such as campus demonstrations, lecturers, setting up a stall, or distributing leaflets. And, on those rare occasions when they do, approval is often withdrawn at the last moment, without any meaningful explanation. Not rare at all, student organizers of demonstrations or teach-ins are summonsed to a disciplinary committee.

Academic Freedom And Free Speech In The US

This is not Israel. I want Rachel and Nadia to stumble, perhaps even fall, as they ready themselves to assume the mantle of leadership in this world.  Orthodoxy simply means more of the same broken path. I want them to be free to exchange provoking rough-and-tumble ideas with Robert and Tarik. At times, it will go smoothly, at others it will make them cringe with the pain that can, indeed must, devolve into tense, uncomfortable debate. It’s what’s called the marketplace of competing ideas.  There is nothing wrong or unhealthy with yelling or even crying over belief.  It’s one of those universal bridges which for time immemorial has transcended the narrow limitations of national boundaries and oaths.

Today’s free speech debate between Zionists that seek to control the argument and those that struggle to resist its corrupting narrow view of our world is not new. Tension between the powerful and those that dare to challenge their stretch is here as old as the Republic itself. Though each generation has confronted different demons in different ways, at day’s end, it has always come back to the notion of

free and robust speech as the best vehicle for knowledge and change. Ironically one of the most eloquent explanations of the First Amendment’s critical role in the search for truth was penned by none other than a Zionist, Justice Louis Brandeis in his concurring opinion in Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375 (Brandeis, J., concurring). Justice Brandeis’ words bear repeating:

“Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to   develop   their   faculties;   and   that   in   its   government   the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law – the argument of force in its worst form.   Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.” Id. at 375-76

Stanley L. Cohen is lawyer and activist in New York City.

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