Two days in the life of a lily-livered liberal

// January 27th, 2013 // Reviews

(! November 2012)

Last week another alert came round about the case of the Department of Government at Ben-Gurion University. After an alert from the extreme right wing (and well funded) organization Im Tirzu the government instituted an international committee to inquire into the department’s academic quality, but this was a mere pretext for a political witch hunt which recently culminated in a decision by a sub-committee the Council of Higher Education to close it. As it happens the full Council has since given the university a deadline to take measures which might forestall closure. In any case, the details do not matter and can be found elsewhere. The point is that the Minister, an ambitious Likud politician, wants to close it against an almost unanimous academic opinion within and outside Israel. At the same time he is promoting the case of the College at Ariel, a West Bank settlement town, to be upgraded to University status. Neither of these things may happen, but if they do, I said, I, a long-term fierce opponent of the academic boycott of Israel – will not accept any more invitations from Israeli institutions.


Then I meet a friend who tells me that he submitted a paper to a UK-based academic journal and that one of the reports he received was fairly openly political and hostile to Israel and Israeli academics, seeming to imply that someone who receives a salary from the Israeli state should not study Arabs or Palestinians. The quality of the work was not an issue and indeed was hardly discussed at all. The other report invoked the work of certain very militant Israeli historians as if they were the only truth. I was appalled. So I said that I would now request lifetime affiliation to an Israeli university as a gesture of solidarity.


These stories are illustrative of the psychology of a liberal trying to act authentically in the face of Israeli politics. All of a sudden, I realized that the two dramatic gestures I had made to myself were, to say the least, hard to reconcile. One is inclined to ask:  ‘what are the real issues?’ in the hope of a clear-cut solution, but first maybe one should ask: how could one go about finding out what the real issues are?


There are grand principles and there are personal motives: both are murky.


Let us start with personal motives.


I have some of my deepest friendships in Israel, developed during a period when I did a lot of research here. I cannot bear the thought that they would receive an offensive response of this kind when they are just honest scientists, They are not collaborators, they are not doing research in order to harm anyone. In supporting them I am supporting pure humans, not Israeli activists or for that matter anti-Israeli activists. I want them to be seen as ‘just people’ in the rather stupid common phrase.


Can a human be just a person? Or, stated in another way, are we justified in demanding that someone who we see as ‘just a friend’ should also take responsibility for crimes committed by his or her government? He just happens to have been born there, or maybe immigrated?  I know of people who have come to live to Israel for all sorts of non-political reasons (to find a husband or a wife for example), and I also know some who have come because they want to fight against the country’s extreme right-wingers in the name of peace and justice. Yes there are people like that and they are not mad. Why should these people be made to suffer on account of the misdeeds of their government?


There seems to be a special mindset concerning social scientists and academics in the humanities. These people are expected to take a stand: not just to keep their hands clean, but to get them dirty in name of peace and justice. When is a UK academic called upon to take a stand in a matter that affects his or her professional prospects: for example, whenever has the Vice-Chancellor of a university resigned in the face of government denigration of all that universities stand for as in Mrs Thatcher’s day, or of chauvinist immigration policies which directly undermine university finances and the life of an educational institution? How would we feel if colleagues told us they will not attend conferences in the UK because our government treats their countrymen so badly in the immigration process? Some people regarded the invasion of Iraq as a crime of monumental proportions, but did anyone refuse to collaborate with a UK academic as a result? Did any UK or US expert in International Relations have a paper turned down because of that invasion?



Yet Israel is different for many people. Some people say that since most Israelis have to serve in the military they are collectively responsible – yet it has always been recognized that professional soldiers do not bear responsibility for the political decisions of their masters, so long as they do not themselves commit war crimes. People who support Israel (left and right) are deeply upset by what they see as a double standard: this country is being held to standards which are not demanded of dozens of other states. But what do they want? Should Israelis not be glad that the time has not yet come when people take for granted the crimes and violations committed in their name, as they might in the Sudan or Zimbabwe – or Ethiopia for that matter.


More scary is the way in which when the subject comes up in the presence of an Israeli, or even when – or because – it does not come up, the personal becomes truly political. There is a shudder in the air, a sense of unease. Then suddenly someone says something really stupid, as if they cannot hold themselves back, and all hell breaks loose.


And here is the sting in the tail: on internal evidence we strongly suspect that the politicized anonymous review of that paper was by an Israeli…












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