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Universalism and lsrael`s Universities
The Jerusalem Report
ILL-WINDS ARE BLOWING IN ISRAELI ACADEMIA. With the country under pressure in the intemational arena growing numbers of people in power in govemment and the universities are pressing for a mobilized academic loyalty to the nation state at the expense of the universal humanist values at the heart of Westem academic endeavor.
Bar-Ilan Univenity, where I work, lies opposite the haredi city of
B`nei B`rak. When the university was founded in 1955, it was in opposition
to B`nei B`rak. Bar-Ilan represented a modern, moderate religious
Zonism, whereas B`nei B`rak, shutting out the modern world, oscillated
between anti-Zonism and non-Zonist ultra-Orttrodoxy. Since then
both Bar-Ilan and B`nei B`rak have changed. B`nei B`rak has become
part of the general population and supports the right or the far right. As
for Bar-Ilan, the moderate, modern Orttrodoxy of yore has become a rare
commodity. In today`s Israel, Jewish Orthodoxy and radical nationalism
go hand in hand.
Like Bar-Ilan, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was founded as
an antithesis to blinkered Orthodoxy. It was not by accident that it was
built on Mount Scopus, outside the Old City of Jerusalem and above the
Temple Mount. The prominent academic leaders of its early years were
liberal humanists, like university president, Judah Irib Magnes, philosophers
Martin Buber and Shmuel Hugo Bergrnann, and Judaic scholars
Gershom Scholem and Ernst Simon. But today, anyone visiting the
Mount Scopus campus enters a walled fortress, arrogant and deaf to is
surroundings. The establishment of the new campus on Mount Scopus
after the 1967 Six Day War was very much a reflection of what characterized
Israel then: imperial ignorance combined with a naive dream of
a quiet, unchallenged Israeli return to historic Jerusalem. But history
refused to cooperate. Today the campus looks like a clenched fist striking
out at the environment, another stronghold designed to prevent the
division of Jerusalem between Israelis and Palestinians- It is difficult to
reconcile this with the universal humanist values of its founding fathers-
Israeli academia does not operate in a vacuum. It is part and parcel of
Israeli society. And the key questions for academia in today`s Israel are
these: To whom are the universities responsible and to whom do individual
academic researchers owe their primary loyalty? To the institution
that employs them? To the state that finances them? Or to the universal
humanist values that inform their scientific research?
These questions are being asked today by faculty, the general public
and the govemment.
Of course, there are Israeli academic researchers with integrity and universal humanist values. Some of them have paid or are paying a career price because of their involvement in public affairs. Of course, there is academic freedom in Israel today and in the past not everything was rosy. Still, something is changing here before our very eyes. In internal academic debates and in public discourse, there is a growing chorus of voices who judge academics by the level of their patriotism. This potentially repressive approach is encouraged by a rightwing governing coalition and a public that feels threatened by `leftwing intellectual terror` they believe threatens Israel`s very existence.
In line with the prevailing mood the syllabus taught in the social sciences
was recently categorized according to`Zionist` and`anti-Zonist`
authors by a group of academics and politicians. This led to a debate in
the Knesset`s Education Committee on `the promotion of Zonist positions
in academia,` to which 14 right-wing professors and students, two
representatives of the Association of Civil Rights, and the deputy rector
of Tel Aviv University were invited` and for which the education minister
expressed his support. In its summary, the committee notes `the direct
reports of post-Zonist bias and anti-Zonist conduct... and resolves that
this phenomenon contradicts Israel`s values as a Jewish and democratic
state, based on Zonist principles, the Declaration of Independence and
the rule of law. The committee further resolves that the insertion of post
and anti-Zonism [into the syllabus] is subversive and undermines the
very foundations of the state, in that it also calls for academic boycotts,
refusal to serve in the IDF, defiance of the law, and that it has nothing to
do with academic freedom, on whose name it calls in vain.`
In the 1980s, the political tension in Israel was mainly domestic,
between right and left wings of almost equal size. Now the Left has been
virtually erased from the political map, and the tension is between a predominantly right-wing society and govemment, and the Westem world
with its universal humanist values. The negative attitude of the govemment
and the public towards human rights organizations is a reflection
of this. The govemment and the public`s overwhelming sense of siege
spawned the demand for the mobilization of academia in defense of the
nation state. This basically boils down to a demand that academics
choose narrow nationalism over universal humanism. The dilemma for
individual academics is not easy. Many support the govemment and the
majority`s goals. Others find it diffcult to resist the pressure, while others,
in narrow scientific fields far removed from the general system of
values on which scientific research rests, are oblivious.
My position is clear: I choose universal humanist values and would
like to see the country and its universities doing the same.
Menachem Klein, a political scientist ot Bar Ilan Univenrsty, is one of
lhe leaders of the Geneva Initiative for peace with the Palestinians.
THE JERUSALEM REPORT AUGUST 2, 2O1O
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