Several days ago Dr. Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times and CounterPunch. In that article he explained why, after years of activity in the peace camp here, he has decided to pin his hopes on applying external pressure on Israel – including sanctions, divestment and an economic, cultural and academic boycott.
He believes, and so do I, that only when the Israeli society’s well-heeled strata pay a real price for the continuous occupation will they finally take genuine steps to put an end to it.
Gordon looks at the Israeli society and sees an apartheid state. While the Palestinians’ living conditions deteriorate, many Israelis are benefiting from the occupation. In between the two sides, Israeli society is sinking into complete denial – drawn into extreme hatred and violence.
The academic community has an important role to play in this process. Yet, instead of sounding the alarm, it wakes up only when someone dares approach the international community and desperately call for help.
The worn-out slogan that everybody raises in this context is “academic freedom,” but it is time to somewhat crack this myth.
The appeal to academic freedom was born during the Enlightenment, when ruling powers tried to suppress independent minded thinkers. Already then, more than 200 years ago, Imannuel Kant differentiated between academics whose expertise (law, theology, and medicine) served the establishment and those who had neither power nor proximity to power. As for the first, he said, there was no sense in talking about “freedom” or “independent thought” as any use of such terminology is cynical.
Since then, cynicism has spread to other faculties as well. At best academic freedom was perceived as the right not to ask troubling questions. At worst was the right to harass whomever asked too much.
When the flag of academic freedom is raised, the oppressor and not the oppressed is usually the one who flies it. What is that academic freedom that so interests the academic community in Israel? When, for example, has it shown concern for the state of academic freedom in the occupied territories?
This school year in Gaza will open in shattered classrooms as there are no building materials there for rehabilitating the ruins; without notebooks, books and writing utensils that cannot be brought into Gaza because of the goods embargo (yes, Israel may boycott schools there and no cry is heard).
Hundreds of students in West Bank universities are under arrest or detention in Israeli jails, usually because they belong to student organizations that the ruling power does not like.
The separation fence and the barriers prevent students and lecturers from reaching classes, libraries and tests. Attending conferences abroad is almost unthinkable and the entry of experts who bear foreign passports is permitted only sparingly.
On the other hand, members of the Israeli academia staunchly guard their right to research what the regime expects them to research and appoint former army officers to university positions. Tel Aviv University alone prides itself over the fact that the Defense Ministry is funding 55 of its research projects and that DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the U.S. Defense Department, is funding nine more. All the universities offer special study programs for the defense establishment.
Are those programs met with any protest? In contrast with the accepted impression, only few lecturers speak up decisively against the occupation, its effect and the increasingly bestial nature of the State of Israel.
The vast majority retains its freedom to be indifferent, up to the moment that someone begs the international community for rescue. Then the voices rise from right and left, the indifference disappears, and violence replaces it: Boycott Israeli universities? This strikes at the holy of holies, academic freedom!
ANAT MATAR is a lecturer in Tel Aviv University’s Department of Philosophy.
This column originally appeared in Ha’aretz.