Honoring the Alchemy of Education: Israel’s Honorary Doctorates


By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-12-12

What do the scientist Howard Cedar, the historian Deborah Lipstadt, the Israeli Supreme Court justice Salim Joubran, the industrialist Eitan Wertheimer, the sociologist Robert Putnam, the Nobel prize winner Dan Shechtman and the singer Yehoram Gaon have in common? These are among the luminaries reminding us that it is honorary doctorate season again at Israeli universities. The newspapers are filled with lists of super-duper high achievers being celebrated for jobs well done and lives well lived.

Honorary doctorates are often distributed at commencement ceremonies to salute particular heroes, emphasize certain defining values, and introduce graduating students to inspiring role models. The juxtaposition of young graduates embarking on their careers with impressive individuals who have already made their mark reminds us of the alchemy of education. We remember that watching others frequently stretches us and that success is not preordained – each of these honorees sweated, suffered and improvised, surviving and thriving in challenging environments.

The seven mentioned – of dozens being honored this spring – offer a broad celebration of modern Israel’s values. Professor Cedar, a top geneticist, represent Israeli science’s extraordinary achievements while Shechtman, the iconoclastic chemist, shows that Israeli greatness is finally being recognized. Wertheimer, of Iscar, now owned by Warren Buffett and Berkshire-Hathaway, represents Israel’s invigorating entrepreneurial climate.  Justice Joubran represents Israel’s muscular legal culture and great strides towards equality in welcoming Israeli Arabs into leadership positions. Gaon represents Israel’s delicious creativity and the commitment of some celebrities to use their fame for public service. Professor Lipstadt, the historian who confronted the Holocaust denier David Irving, represents Israel’s great partnership with the United States and the happy consonance of Jewish, Zionist and academic values, while Putnam, the Harvardian who taught us that this generation likes to Bowl Alone, unlike our more communitarian parents, represents the sweep of achievements in the humanities worldwide. These worthy superstars honor the institutions that honor them.

Missing from the lists I examined for this year were leading politicians – reflecting the current state of political despair. For all its strengths epitomized by its impressive universities, Israel is enduring a leadership vacuum and a crisis of popular confidence in politics. As in the US, many Israeli voters doubt their leaders or their institutions can solve the serious problems afoot. Universities are sometimes happy alternatives, and, frankly, sometimes ugly mirrors reflecting what goes on – as my Jerusalem Post writing colleague Seth J. Frantzman reported last week. The phenomenon of what he calls “Incitement U” is a serious problem demanding frank discussion and creative reform.  Frantzman was called a “collaborator” at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev last week for daring to think politically incorrect thoughts – backed up by research — about Beduin land claims. Still, during honorary degree season, even Israeli universities usually are on their best behavior.

In a more ambiguous category are the many honorary degree recipients who earned their honors by donating generously to the university. On the one hand, philanthropy is a fancy name for Tsedakah, righteous charity, and should be rewarded. Universities need the help; generous benefactors deserve the thanks. Giving generously in a contemporary culture of self-indulgence which makes few people ever feel like they have accumulated enough is an act of heroism and selfless commitment to the next generation. The usual honorary degree mix of genius academics, general high achievers, and generous donors itself represents the tripod on which the academy stands – pure knowledge, pragmatic action, and community spirit.

At the same time, the “look Mom, I bought a doctorate” game fools no one. As the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel writes in his illuminating new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, the game is a form of corruption: “Money can buy things, but only in somewhat degraded form,” he writes. He then imagines what would happen if universities were honest, saying at the degree-granting ceremonies to a wealthy donor: “We confer honorary degrees upon distinguished scientists and artists for their achievements. But we award you this degree in thanks for the $10 million you gave us to build a new library.”  Of course, “the transparency would dissolve the good.” Instead, Sandel notes, universities “speak of public service, philanthropic commitment and dedication to the university’s mission – an honorific vocabulary that blurs the distinction between an honorary degree and a bought one.”

Blessedly absent from the Israeli honoree community are those absurd salutes to the famous – simply for being famous. In recent years, American universities have devalued their honorary degrees by granting doctorates to Shaquille O’Neal, Jack Nicholson, and Dolly Parton. Such awards often thrill parents, students, alumni and donors, giving them opportunities for celebrity namedropping back home – but they demean the process.

Six years ago, Knox College granted the television comedian Stephen Colbert an honorary degree. His best career advice for students, he said, was: get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous. And eventually some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat.”

Fortunately, Israeli universities, especially these days, are not honoring the jack squatters but the thinkers, doers, and builders of today and tomorrow. Even without any rah-rah blue and white speeches, even without quoting Herzl, these ceremonies are profoundly moving Zionist acts. They tell the story of a society that is growing, that is contributing to the world – and recognizing the world-class achievements of others. When we pull back the historical lens and consider that these universities were not established in 1249 like Oxford or 1636 like Harvard, but mere decades ago, when we remember all the traumas and travails, we should not only salute the honorees, not only praise the universities, but hail the Jewish people and the entire Zionist enterprise.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Gil Troy: Anti-Israeli campus activists are normalizing hate and death threats

By Gil Troy, National Post, 3-24-11


A twidiot’s weapon.

“I want to shoot everyone in this room,” a McGill University student recently announced using his online Twitter feed, claiming he had surreptitiously “infiltrated” what was in fact an open film screening of Indoctrinate U, hosted by Conservative McGill and Libertarian McGill. “I should have brought an M16,” read another of his messages. In short toxic tweets, the student called the conservative gathering “a Zionist meeting” and a “Satanist ritual,” while sprinkling in insults about Jews.

Having taught thousands of students during 20 years at McGill, I will not allow one idiot tweeter — a twidiot, if you will — to define my McGill experience. But his story of intellectual hooliganism is sadly familiar. And the timing — during the two weeks in March that anti-Israeli activists call “Israeli Apartheid Week” — was telling. The student broadcasting this poison had breathed in the intellectual and ideological equivalent of second-hand smoke.

Fanatics and borderline personalities are feeding off the anything-goes hysteria demonizing Israel. (At Queen’s University, the student rector himself recently, and nonsensically, decried “the genocide happening in Palestine,” which he described as “perhaps the biggest human rights tragedy of my generation.”) Shrill language — and even threats — apparently now are seen as a normal part of the campus experience, both offline and online, when they are directed at the Jewish state and its supporters.

The twidiot — who has been investigated by the police, and whose name I’ll omit — does not own a gun. Therefore, McGill’s administration said nothing until the campus Tribune newspaper exposed the incident. The dean of students claimed “there was no need to advise the community of the matter because there was no danger posed to the community.” Actually, such barbs endanger cherished values, our sacred space where we should learn how to disagree without being disagreeable, and confront ideas we even may abhor peacefully, civilly.

Ultimately, these hate-tweets offer a “teachable moment” to explain what the university is for. We must explain not just what one McGill administrator called “the downside of social media,” but the upside of academic tolerance, of learning from others, of approaching issues with an open mind, not a clenched fist. If we cannot create a safe intellectual space for our students where they can express different opinions — including support for democratic Israel — we are wasting our time. We all are diminished if even one student feels politically intimidated.

This year, the president of the University of Winnipeg, Lloyd Axworthy, countered the annual assault against Israel with programs giving the Middle East conflict a “full and fair hearing as opposed to a one-sided hearing.” The principal of McGill University, Heather Munroe-Blum, responded to the toxic tweeter with a powerful statement championing “the civilizing influence of knowledge,” proclaiming “McGill stands firmly for tolerance — and just as strongly against hate.”

We in the university must uphold academic values of integrity, civility, mutual respect, authenticity, accuracy. We must cultivate a culture of ideas, preserving an island of sanity amid the polarizing blogosphere, the media carnival and a politics that scapegoats the United States and Israel. And we must teach that verbal violence harms not only the target but the judgmental partisan, so busy “infiltrating” and judging and issuing threats, there is no time to think or learn — which is what universities should be about.

National Post

–  Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University in Montreal, and a visiting scholar affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

Campus anti-Zionism is a consumer protection issue

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-24-10

A recent trip to Toronto unsettled me.  Speaking to various “Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center,” I heard many parents confess their fears about their children’s “safety” on campus.  They had heard too many examples of both pro-Palestinian activists and anti-Zionist professors bullying students.  They resented these hyper-politicized students and educators who pushed their points so aggressively that Jewish students feel harassed, hiding their identities or obscuring their true thoughts to avoid conflict or lowered marks. They lacked faith in the administrators whose job description should include ensuring student safety.  These discussions convinced me that campus anti-Zionism is a consumer-rights issue, not just a human rights issue.

Finding universities “unsafe” distresses me, having devoted my life to academe.  While this is a golden age for Israel-bashing this is also a golden age for Jews on campus. Never before have we had so many Jewish presidents and professors, Jewish students and Jewish studies programs. And on most North American campuses, Jews feel comfortable.  Moreover, I set the bar high before declaring a campus a hostile environment or labeling it anti-Zionist, let alone an anti-Semitic atmosphere. One or two anti-Zionist professors, a dozen anti-Zionist loudmouths, and the occasional anti-Zionist speech, are not sufficient.

Some campuses, however, have become infamous centers of anti-Zionism.  Even though universities usually are hyper-tolerant places, on too many campuses intolerance for Israel, pro-Israel students, and, sometimes Jews, festers.  There, students going about their business are assailed by shrill attacks on Israel, while students who wear Jewish stars or express their Judaism or Israel identification are frequently shouted down. There, regularly, speaker after speaker, rally after rally, demonizes Israel. On those campuses, students coming to, say, a women’s study class, unrelated to the Middle East might find themselves forced to walk through a “mock checkpoint,” in order enter their classroom, or regularly endure a math professor’s anti-Israel harangue.

For years, many of us have fought this as a human rights issue. We noted that for all other self-identified groups on campus, be it African-Americans or gays, women or Hispanics, the burden of proof is on the bigot when a group feels harassed, not on the victim. Only with Jews, it seems, is the burden of proof on us to show that it is truly anti-Semitism and not “just” anti-Zionism or criticism of Israel. As a result, Israel’s adversaries have wrapped themselves in human rights rhetoric, realizing they can be extremely aggressive as long as they claim to be defending the oppressed Palestinians (invoking false charges of apartheid and charges of racism always helps).

This remains a matter of equity, justice, dignity and civility. It is unacceptable when pro-Israel Jews feel demonized, when they feel demeaned by professors who are constantly bashing Israel, when they choose not to wear their Hebrew t-shirts or hide their Jewish  jewelry, or stop defending Israel because they fear harassment, bad grades or harm.

Framing this as a consumer protection issue universalizes it, raising important, often ignored questions, about quality of campus life. Fighting classroom harassment of pro-Zionist voices (in Israel too, alas) as an educational malpractice issue, shifts from a fight about rights, meaning academic freedom, to questions of educational competence. Any professor who fails to establish an open environment, wherein students feel safe to question, is a failure. Professors who make students uncomfortable for questioning the professors’ line are abusing the power of the podium. How can students learn in a defensive clinch? Fighting against educational malpractice might spark a much-needed campaign for classroom competence.

Learning from our feminist friends, we need zero-tolerance for casual remarks or frontal assaults fostering a hostile environment. This goes beyond the blatant heavy-handed abuses that constitute educational malpractice, and includes the campus as well as the classroom. Here, Jews and pro-Israeli activists should not ask for special treatment, only equal treatment. In these vulgar times, students have to be taught civility. I don’t want a sterile, politically correct environment wherein students fear expressing themselves.  But we need more self-imposed groundrules, and more sensitivity to the discomfort too many students – and their parents – feel.

Finally, donors, alumni and boards of governors must assess a university’s academic leader by asking if students feel safe on campus, personally, psychologically, educationally, as well as physically. If a student, let alone groups of students, don’t feel safe on campus, that campus is in crisis with a failing academic leader – no matter how much money might be raised that year.

Students and parents can take the lead on this consumer issue.  Amid the many guides to life on campus, Jewish students should compile a guide to Jewish life on campuses. The guide should assess the atmosphere for pro-Israel students, and give grades for campus “safety.” Without editorializing, the guide could also detail specific statements and incidents wherein professors and campus hooligans make Jews – or anyone else – feel unsafe on campus.

In Toronto, one gentleman said that with all the attacks on Israel in Canada, he feels safest in Israel. I know what he means.  After a session against delegitimization in New Orleans at the GA, the Interparliamentary coalition against anti-Semitism in Ottawa, and a day talking intensively about anti-Semitism and campus anti-Zionism in Toronto, I arrived in Jerusalem last week and breathed a sigh of relief. How soothing it is to deal with Israel as a real place, as a happy place, as a thriving place, not just as a problem. We need to fight for Israel on campus and beyond, but we cannot so internalize our enemies’ views of Israel, be so busy defending Israel, that we forget how lucky we are to have a Jewish state, and how much inspiration we can draw from all its wonders.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, as well as The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

Gil Troy Quoted in “Maple Leaf Madness – Chabad Confronts Anti-Israel Activism on Canada’s College Campuses”

Lubavitch.com, 11-15-2010

Dr. Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University in Montreal and author of Why I am a Zionist told Lubavitch.com that a lot is riding on the countersteps to the toxic propgaganda. “At university campuses in Canada and in the U.S., many future leaders are being educated in poisoned environments, where Israel is portrayed as the bad guy.”

Chabad’s response is less about shouting down and in-your-face protests than about teaching students to connect with their own heritage, and understand the Jewish claim to the land….

Prof. Troy promotes advocacy in his literature, but he also values Chabad’s approach. “Studies show that if you have a strong connection to Judaism, you will have a strong connection to Israel.” Chabad, he explains, “creates a spiritual conversation and a cultural conversation, getting the issue away from politics,” which helps achieve the ultimate goal: supporting the Jewish homeland.

“You can’t do Jewish without embracing Israel.”

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.”