It is ironic that Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), Israel’s only university bearing the name of the Jewish state’s founding father, and established in the ancient desert he dreamt of reviving, has become a hotbed of anti-Israel propaganda at the expense of proper scholarly endeavor.
So much so that an international committee of scholars, appointed by Israel’s Council for Higher Education to evaluate political science and international relations programs in Israeli universities, recently recommended that BGU “consider closing the Department of Politics and Government” unless it abandoned its “strong emphasis on political activism,” improved its research performance, and redressed the endemic weakness “in its core discipline of political science.” In other words, they asked that the Department return to accurate scholarship rather than indoctrinate the students with libel.
The same day the committee’s recommendation was revealed, Professor David Newman — who founded that department and bequeathed it such a problematic ethos, for which “achievement” he was presumably rewarded with a promotion to Deanship of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, from where he can shape other departments in a similar way — penned an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post in which he compared Israel’s present political culture to that of Nazi Germany. “I will no doubt be strongly criticized for compared making such a comparison,” he wrote,
but we would do well to paraphrase the famous words of Pastor Niemoller, writing in 1946 about Germany of the 1930s and 1940s: “When the government denied the sovereign rights of the Palestinians, I remained silent; I was not a Palestinian. When they discriminated against the Arab citizens of the country, I remained silent; I was not an Arab. When they expelled the hapless refugees, I remained at home; I was no longer a refugee. When they came for the human rights activists, I did not speak out; I was not an activist. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.”
Even if every single charge in this paraphrase were true, Israel would still be light years apart from Nazi Germany. But one need not be a politics professor or faculty dean to see the delusion in these assertions.
To begin with, which Israeli government has denied “the sovereign rights of the Palestinians”? That of David Ben-Gurion which accepted the 1947 partition resolution with alacrity? Or those headed by Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Benjamin Netanyahu, which explicitly endorsed the two-state solution? Has Newman perhaps mistaken Israel’s founding father for Hajj Amin Husseini, leader of the Palestinian Arabs from the early 1920s to the 1940s, who tirelessly toiled to ethnically cleanse Palestine’s Jewish community and destroy the nascent state of Israel? Or possibly for Husseini’s successors, from Yasser Arafat, to Ahmad Yassin, to Mahmoud Abbas, whose commitment to Israel’s destruction has been equally unwavering?
There is no moral equivalence whatever between the Nazi persecution, exclusion, segregation, and eventually industrial slaughter of European Jewry, and Israel’s treatment of its Arab population. Not only do the Arabs in Israel enjoy full equality before the law, but from the designation of Arabic as an official language, to the recognition of non-Jewish religious holidays as legal resting days for their respective communities, Arabs in Israel have enjoyed more prerogatives than ethnic minorities anywhere in the democratic world.
To put it more bluntly, while six million Jews, three quarters of European Jewry, died at the hands of the Nazis in the six years that Hitler dominated Europe, Israel’s Arab population has not only leapt tenfold during the Jewish state’s 63 years of existence – from 156,000 in 1948 to 1.57 million in 2010 – but its rate of social and economic progress has often surpassed that of the Jewish sector, with the result that the gap between the two communities has steadily narrowed.
It is precisely this exemplary, if by no means flawless, treatment of its Arab citizens that underlies their clear preference of Israeli citizenship to that of one in a prospective Palestinian state (a sentiment shared by most East Jerusalem Palestinians). This preference has also recently driven tens of thousands of African Muslims illegally to breach the Jewish state’s border in search of employment, rather than to stay in Egypt, whose territory they have to cross on the way. The treatment of mass illegal immigration (hardly the hapless refugees presented by Newman) is a major problem confronting most democracies in the West these days, where there is an ongoing debate about what are the basic responsibilities of governments for their citizens’ wellbeing and the right of nations to determine the identity of those entering their territory.
Even more mind-boggling is Newman’s equating Israel’s attempt to prevent foreign funding of Israeli nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved in the international Israel de-legitimization campaign — along the lines of the US Foreign Agents Legislation Act — with repressing political opponents by the Nazi regime. What “human rights activists” have been unlawfully detained by the Israeli government, let alone rounded up and thrown into concentration camps? On what planet does the Ben-Gurion University faculty dean live?
But Newman is not someone to be bothered by the facts. His is the standard “colonialist paradigm” prevalent among Israeli and Western academics, which views Zionism, and by extension the state of Israel, not as a legitimate expression of national self-determination but as “a colonizing and expansionist ideology and movement” (in the words of another BGU professor) – an offshoot of European imperialism at its most rapacious.
And therein, no doubt, lies the problem with BGU’s Politics and Government Department: the only Israeli department singled out by the international committee for the unprecedented recommendation of closure. For if its founder and long-time member, who continues to wield decisive influence over its direction, views Israel as a present-day reincarnation of Nazi Germany in several key respects, how conceivably can the department ensure the “sustained commitment to providing balance and an essential range of viewpoints and perspectives on the great issues of politics” required for its continued existence?
Efraim Karsh is research professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London, director of the Middle East Forum (Philadelphia) and author, most recently, of Palestine Betrayed.