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August 31, 2020 5:52 am

Scrutinizing Israel and the Ivory Tower

avatar by Oz and Tamar Almog

Opinion

The University of Haifa campus. Photo: Zvi Roger – Haifa Municipality.

Academia: All the Lies — What Went Wrong in the University Model and What Will Come in Its Place by Oz and Tamar Almog (2020, Kindle-Amazon), is an examination of the academic ivory tower, and exposes the culture of lying, denial, and fixation that has taken over institutions of higher education across the world.

The book contains an extensive chapter on the decline of the Humanities, including a reference to the disease of antisemitism that has grown within them. An excerpt is below:

In 2017, a scandal erupted in Israeli academia. Then-Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, a member of the national-religious Jewish Home party, requested that Prof. Asa Kasher prepare a code of ethics for Israeli academia. The request was made in light of tension following the call by a number of scientific associations and universities around the world to boycott Israeli institutions of higher education, echoed by a number of radical Israeli lecturers. Prof. Kasher, a world-renowned expert on the philosophy of morals, a winner of the Israel Prize, and the writer of the IDF’s ethical code at the time, was up for the challenge. Apparently, though, he did not realize that he was stepping into a minefield. He developed an ethical code that was careful and apolitical in spirit, and focused on the general checks and balances of academic discourse.

But the response to the initiative was, predictably, sharp and sweeping. Israel’s Association of University Heads announced that “the proposal denies institutions of higher education the freedom to determine rules of conduct and behavior for members of academic faculties,” and the chairmen of the senior faculty organizations put out their own communiqué, which included the following: “The proposed code threatens to negatively alter the working conditions of faculty members, to terrorize them, and to send them day and night before a thought police.”

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Obviously, the protests and manifestos didn’t exactly detail what exactly was so illegitimate about the proposal made by Prof. Kasher, and offered no changes or improvements to the version he came up with, used in countless countries and institutions around the world. Due to the timing (increased tension in Israel between the right and left), the rightist image and identity of Minister Bennett (who as part of his job served also as head of the Council of Higher Education, and had already found himself butting political heads with academia), and the political objective Bennett did not conceal (restricting the exploitation of academic freedom for political propaganda, especially anti-Israel propaganda), the real debate went unnoticed: What are the boundaries of discourse within the framework of academic freedom on campus, if there are any?

One prominent Israeli intellectual who has been asked about this fascinating and touchy subject is Prof. Amnon Rubinstein — a legal scholar, publicist, author, philosopher, and politician. In his book Cracks in the Academy, written with Yitzhak Pasha, the authors emphasize that despite the fact that boundaries on expression on campus must be as free of restriction as possible, both in conferences and classes, they are not entirely lawless — for moral reasons and especially for reasons of proper conduct, sensitivity, and consideration of the other (in their eyes, these restrictions apply only to lectures heard in public places, and not to academic publications).

One of the (many) examples brought by the duo is an event from 2007, when Columbia University in New York, known for its radical progressive approach, invited the president of Iran to give a guest lecture on campus. It defended itself from criticism for giving a platform to an individual calling for the destruction of a sovereign state — Israel — with the claim that the invitation was part of the academic freedom it enjoyed. “In our opinion,” write Rubinstein and Pasha, “this is a false claim, since academic freedom does not require a university to invite and respect everyone who is eligible for freedom of expression.”

An event similar in nature occurred the same year at Tel Aviv University. A conference organized by the Faculty of Law under the name “Security for Political Prisoners” invited a Palestinian terrorist, sentenced to 27 years in prison for throwing Molotov cocktails at buses, to lecture (in an additional irony, he gave his talk in the Hall of Justice). Rubinstein and Pasha comment on this: “Anyone who defends academic liberty in this case must answer the following question: Would he have given an academic platform to Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, as part of a conference titled ‘Criminal or Political Prisoner’?”

No doubt restrictions on the contents of lectures and conferences, not to mention classes, are a slippery slope. Rubinstein and Pasha note in this regard: “If we start rummaging through their views and trying to distinguish between a professional statement and a political one, we will open the door for censorship on statements by academics. Such censorship will do harm to the required variety of opinions, and may lead to a “cooling effect” (a fear of voicing opinions that are not a part of the heart of the consensus).” And still, in their opinion, one should remember that academic liberties do not grant a free ride to political propaganda, because that would abuse the mandate and authority given to a professor. The classroom space — and actually the entire course — grant an advantage to the professor over his or her students. Therefore, even if monitoring lecturers is not desirable, they themselves must be extra careful to avoid preaching, preferring certain views in classroom discussion, directing students towards a particular stance, and a one-sided presentation of controversial social issues as much as possible.

In order to prevent undesired political bias, Rubinstein and Pasha suggest avoiding as much as possible the production of events which are not distinctly academic and use the auspices of the university to promote political views. It’s true that it’s important to challenge society and raise every question and disagreement without fear, but there is no requirement to initiate pointless provocations, which stilt conversation more than they expand knowledge. There is no requirement not to respect your audience, no requirement to offend your students’ demographic groups, and no requirement to slander your country and incite against it — and by the same token, not to incite against those who legitimately criticize it. More than a question of content, this is a question of pluralism, tolerance, dosage, and style.

The progressive trend undoubtedly stretches tolerance levels in academia to a maximum, and even beyond. No doubt many lecturers, especially in the liberal arts, cross red ethical lines and make improper use of their classes to promote political agendas. That’s why an ethical code which defines boundaries of responsibility (it’s exactly as it sounds: a code only, and as Kasher defines it, “an educational document without any legal or disciplinary standing”) is desirable, and not necessarily an expression of compulsion, establishment supervision, or silencing your opposition. It is actually those who scream bloody murder at the ethical code prepared by Prof. Kasher who, in their hysterics and aggressiveness, as in the political emphasis they gave to their protest, indicate that they approach the debate with unclean hands.

And after all that, it’s doubtful whether the solution is the implementation of regulations or the wording of ethical codes. In our opinion, the discussion revolving around freedom of expression in teaching is practically anachronistic. When the education market is completely open, and any institution or center stands on its own (privately or subsidized by interested public organizations), the question of political legitimacy will no longer apply. No longer will there be a captive audience of students, and all will choose for themselves where and with whom they want to acquire knowledge. Lecturers will be able to slander whomever they want and make a living off it — or not.

Prof. Oz Almog is a sociologist and historian of Israeli society, and Dr. Tamar Almog specializes in alternative instruction, educational systems, and youth culture. Both are faculty members at the University of Haifa, Israel.

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