University Presidents Should Fight Academics Delegitimizing Israel

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-6-10

The leaders of the country’s universities must face the facts. The issue is already on many donors’ agendas: The campaign to delegitimize Israel is gaining traction, with a few, shrill, oft-quoted Israeli academics participating enthusiastically.

Board of Governors season for Israeli universities is approaching. Hundreds of wealthy Jews from across the world will rub elbows with wealthy Israelis as leading “Friends of” their favorite university, in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Beer Sheba and Haifa, Rechovot and Ramat Gan. They will be wined and dined, schmoozed and boozed. But this year, as the universities finalize their schedules they must decide. Are they treating these people as sheep waiting to be fleeced or will they address them as intelligent idealists struggling with the destructive role some Israeli academics are playing at home and abroad today?

Israel’s university presidents must face facts. Whether or not they put it on the schedule, the issue is already on many donors’ agendas. The campaign to delegitimize Israel is gaining traction, with a few, shrill, oft-quoted Israeli academics participating enthusiastically. These people have no trouble benefiting from donors’ largesse – and the state’s educational subsidies — while trashing Zionism and Israel. They curry favor with non-Jews by denouncing Israel, without taking responsibility for how Israel’s enemies use their words.

FOR EXAMPLE, on April 6, 31 members of “Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS call from within” – many of whom are Israeli academics – cheered the Berekely Student Senate for endorsing an anti-Israel diverstment initiative, writing: “we were very happy to hear of your decision.”

This letter complicated an intense but nevertheless ultimately successful campaign to uphold the student body president’s veto of the resolution.

This academic year began with one Israeli department head calling in the Los Angeles Times, the London Guardian and elsewhere for “an international boycott” as “the only way to save Israel from itself.” I am omitting names and universities because I do not want to demonize individuals or single out particular institutions. The problem is general, and growing.

When university presidents have addressed this issue they have correctly defended these caustic critics’ rights to free speech and academic freedom. I agree. I question the integrity and class of those who advocate boycotting a university while cashing its checks, but I defend their rights to be foolish, harsh, greedy, and inconsistent. Natan Sharansky’s famous test for a democracy – can you go to the town square and denounce the government without being arrested – is essential in universities.

But treatises on academic freedom are not enough. Donors justifiably resent being given a Zionist fund-raising shpiel while fearing their hard-earned dollars are subsidizing the worldwide anti-Zionist campaign.

While protecting the freedom of everyone to speak freely, university leaders must start leading on this issue. No Israeli university president has denounced delegitimization as boldy as Lawrence Summers did when he was president of Harvard.

FORE STARTERS, universities should distinguish between academic freedom and educational malpractice. There have been reports – which require more study and careful documentation – that there are many Israeli professors, and even certain academic departments, who push a harsh anti-Israel line so aggressively that students and untenured professors feel pressured into parroting the dominant radical anti-Zionist agenda. Universities must ensure that students are exposed to a wide-range of views and that students do not feel bullied politically – from the left or the right.

University presidents should crack down on educational malpractice, which includes lazy professors using their classroom podiums as political platforms, doctrinaire professors squelching students’ opinions, and a host of other bad practices not connected to politics. In too many universities, in Israel and abroad, teaching is handled with benign neglect, as an afterthought sandwiched in between research and committee work. Simply raising the issue raises consciousness and raises standards. Universities needs ombudsmen, who teach students how to respond if they feel bullied and should educate professors to become better educators. These quality-of-life initiatives will result in a better experience for students.

Second, just as the university presidents on parade boast about the scientific and technological innovations emanating from their universities, they should showcase the positive social benefits bubbling up on campus, while honoring those professors who stand up for Israel abroad – even if it costs them a research grant or two.

The efforts, for example, of Hebrew University’s Robert Wistrich, whose towering new volume A Lethal Obsession details the history of anti-Semitism, illustrate the benefits of having an open university. Wistrich’s credibility would be damaged if he came from a doctrinaire university that squelched free speech; in many ways it is enhanced knowing he emerged from an academic environment which is reputed to be hypercritical of Israel and Zionism.

Finally, the university presidents should show they are proactive by becoming proactive. Together, they represent an impressive group of world-class scholars. These scholars are the best argument against a boycott, proving that it would hurt the boycotters more than the boycotted.

Universities should encourage more study from abroad, more academic collaborations, and more initiatives helping democrats all over the world understand how to distinguish between criticizing particular Israeli policies and demonizing the Jewish state. Perhaps the presidents should draft a joint statement, signed by hundreds of academics, defending academic freedom while affirming the importance of not singling out Israel, not demonizing Israel, not delegitimizing Israel. Let them declare their commitment to Israeli democracy, to patriotism, to a renewal of a big tent Zionism that is not defined by boundary disputes but transcends our political divisions to launch a conversation about how we achieve meaning in this world individually and collectivelly, as citizens and a nation.

And once they are hosting the Governors, these elaborate schmooze-fests with a network of leaders from Israel and abroad – why not include them, substantively, respectfully, in on the conversation. Acknowledge the dilemmas, the complexities, while enlisting these generous, thoughtful donors in on the much-needed campaign in Israel and abroad to reaffirm Jewish and democratic values, defend Israel, and renew our Zionist dreams.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”

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