Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War. It was a stunning victory. And while we have already buried our fallen and healed our wounded we are learning today, fifty years later, of yet another casualty; one which if not healed will put our Jewish democratic state at risk.
For those too young to remember (more than half of the population in Israel as well as over 50% of the American Jewish community) it is difficult to describe the vulnerability and isolation of Israelis, or the fear for the future of Israel that Jews around the world felt in the weeks before the Six Day War. It is equally impossible to describe the relief and celebration at the victory. Before June 5, 1967, Israel was considered as David among the Goliath of the surrounding Arab nations. In the weeks before the conflict, the UN and European countries abandoned their security commitments; they allowed the Egyptian army to position itself in massive numbers on Israel’s borders. The Straits of Tiran were closed to Israeli shipping, shutting down the Port of Eilat and closing off all the imports to the south of Israel. It signaled the culmination of years of planning, a massive military build-up, and a policy of military confrontation on the part of Arab countries against Israel. As tensions mounted in May, daily propaganda announcements from the press and Arab leadership called for the total destruction of Israel. On May 30, Jordan joined Egypt in a military pact. On the eve of the war, Iraq and Syria added to the military alliance.
On paper, the Israeli Defense Forces were outmatched. The Arab countries surrounding Israel had significantly larger armies and more equipment, particularly sophisticated armor and aircraft supplied by the Soviet Union. Western countries pressed for a policy of restraint. For Israel, however, time weighed heavily; a policy of restraint was not possible either militarily or economically. With war on the horizon, the Israeli military planned a pre-emptive strike, fully aware of the grave risks to the lives of the soldiers and the future of the country.
Focusing on the more powerful and aggressive Egypt, Israel initiated secret back channel communiques to Jordan promising that if left alone, Israel would not attack. The messages were ignored and when Jordan attacked both military and civilian targets, Israel revised its initial plans, ultimately capturing the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. The extent of the successes in combat surprised the world; it was a surprise to Israel as well. When the guns fell silent on the seventh day, Israel found itself in control of a vastly larger territory, including the portion of its historical homeland, which it had ceded in the partition of the British Mandate. Jerusalem, once a city torn between Israel and Jordan was now whole. The Jewish community of Kfar Etzion that had been over-run in 1947 was now back in Israeli control. Israelis were now free to go to Hebron and the Cave of the Patriarchs where Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca as well as Jacob and Leah are believed to be buried. Israel no longer felt like little David.
The war was over in a week the soldiers came home and the victory was intoxicating. However, the conquered territory was not empty of people. It was home to a large non-Jewish population, Moslems, Christians, Bedouin, and Druze many whose families had lived there for generations and others who had arrived there as war refugees during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. How these people would be treated saddled the Israeli government with an entire portfolio of new concerns. The victory had brought with it, legal, moral, political, social, demographic, economic, and security issues. Fifty years later, there is still no consensus regarding the disposition of the territories taken in the Six Day War remaining under Israel’s control.
Almost as soon as the guns quieted and the smoke cleared, the conversation about “trading land for peace” began. At the same time there were then (as there still are now) Israelis who celebrated the victory as a starting point for fulfilling a new Israeli destiny: that of a Greater Land of Israel. The point of this column is not to argue these issues. The point is to highlight that after fifty years, there are remain substantial disagreements among Israelis and among Jews globally about what can and should be done.
These debates take place around dinner tables, in newspaper articles and on the floor of the Knesset. The dialogue sometimes is quiet and academic and sometime raucous, filling public squares with hundreds of thousands of people. Debates like these are vitally important for a healthy democracy in order to maintain an informed public and allow that public to express ideas that can shape government policy. A state that cannot or will not listen to the voices of its people can no longer call itself free. And if Israel is truly to be the Zionist dream, a Jewish Homeland, and not simply a country for Israelis, that same dialogue is crucial for the relationship between Israel and Jewish communities around the world as well.
For fifty years, the debate has raged on in a country where a majority of its citizens support a two state solution even while that same population continues to elect a right wing government that doesn’t.
Unfortunately, now, that same government is responsible for efforts to shut down the discussion and silence of debate, to make free discussion the casualty we mentioned earlier. Recently, it was revealed that Naftali Bennet, Israel’s Education Minister, has initiated action to create an official, state sponsored “code of conduct” that would preclude political discussion by university professors. This code would replace the existing individual university parameters for conduct and as proposed, would require Israeli universities “to establish a unit that would monitor political activity” on campus. If it was determined that a professor engaged in any kind of political discussion as reported by a student, the professor could receive a disciplinary citation. Repeated complaints could lead to more severe consequences.
The code also prohibits professors’ collaboration with organizations that are considered political.
The Committee of University Heads in Israel, representing the nation’s seven universities, responded strongly with a statement that the proposal “would deny institutions of higher education the freedom to set norms of behavior for academic staff members… A careful study of the code shows that although it is defined as an ‘ethical code for appropriate behavior in the areas of overlap between academic activity and political activity,’ many of its articles deal with general activities in academic research and lectures.” The university statement said that the proposed code “undermines institutes of higher education’s freedom to decide their own codes of conduct for their academic staffs, and thus infringes on academic freedom in the most serious and fundamental way”.
The Chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students, Ram Shefa, responded to the proposal saying, “Although we support the struggle for each and every student to have the right to feel safe in expressing his or her political views without fear of the consequences, we do not support such silencing and harming of freedom of speech”. “The idea that one can restrict speech and thought within the academy is fundamentally flawed, because, yes, everything is political and it is impossible to separate politics from other fields of life, especially in the academy” he continued.
The bill as proposed so shocked the international community of educators that even The American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers were driven to jointly release a statement in support of the Committee of University Heads and Ram Shefa. “The ‘code of ethics’ that the government of Israel is considering for the country’s academic institutions is a threat not only to academic freedom in Israel, but to Israel’s standing as a democracy. We join with colleagues in Israel’s Association of University Heads, and with the National Union of Israeli Students, in condemning it.”
The Israel Democracy Institute opposed the proposal saying, “The ethical code that is being proposed unreasonably expands the definition of what is political. The definition does not differentiate between political and the public, between political and ethical, and between systematic preaching and free discourse. Political activity, according to the proposed ethical code, includes all direct support or opposition to ‘a particular point of view in a recognized public dispute’. … Such an ethical code tramples freedom of expression with a heavy foot. It would cause professors to self-censor and create an opening for pursuing and harassing professors”
Member of Knesset Tzippy Livni (Zionist Union) was more blunt. “This is another attempt by the government to silence its critics and to stamp out freedom of thought, this time in the universities. This is the kind of thing backwards countries do, it is not appropriate for Israel.” Member of Knesset Zehava Galon (Meretz) called the proposal a “Bolshevik code that undermines the education for democracy and pluralism.” Even Israel’s President Rivlin commented, “Freedom of speech and thought should not be taken for granted… The freedom to express a different opinion needs procedural protections and constant vigilance…We will not be able to build thriving and vital systems of scientific research and development of inspirational works of art if we do not actively foster educational systems that encourage diversity, controversy, initiative and unpredictability.”
Similar concerns, of official government sanctioned thought control are being raised by another Bennet initiative, a program called Mosaic United, a funding platform formed by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry described as a program designed to promote activities for young Jews in the Diaspora. The organization, previously known as “The Initiative for the Future of the Jewish People” has as its agenda — to combat “critical discourse” about Israel. While formally non-denominational, the Ministry has selected Hillel International, Chabad, and a collection of Orthodox organizations banding together under the Olami banner to operate the program, estimated to run about $66 million this year. Hillel is an organization for Jewish university students that has come under attack recently for its censorship of invited speakers from Israeli progressive organizations. The other two organizations are ultra-orthodox groups with a hard right wing political orientation.
This heavy-handed Israeli government plan to shut-off “critical discourse” among Diaspora Jews is not only wrong in principle; it is counterproductive to its own stated goals. It will fail to change the hearts and minds of those who question the wisdom or the justice of current Israeli government policy. It may stifle discussions but will not eliminate them. Instead, it will move these debates outside the Jewish mainstream. It will alienate a large swath of the Jewish public, particularly young adults who have a serious conflict balancing their core beliefs of social justice with the behavior of the Israeli government. It will undermine the Jewish communal institutions that were created to serve the needs of the entire American Jewish community in all its shapes and sizes, colors and viewpoints. The attempt to muzzle Jewish and Zionist pluralism also will have the unintended consequence of turning away critically minded Jews and Jewish youth from Zionism and Israel, when they will not see the rich diversity of opinion in the community but only an unappealing monolith.
In an interview with Haaretz, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Reform Movement in North America, said the initiative “continues the Orthodox monopoly in Israel and extends it to the Diaspora. This is unacceptable to the large majority of Jews here.” He continued saying “We’ve never been invited [by the Diaspora Ministry or Mosaic] to present our campus activity”.
The great victory of the Israeli Defense forces in 1967, repelling armies arrayed for the destruction of the Jewish State, altered Israel’s condition and how the family of nations perceived it. That achievement, however, created new challenges and questions about what Israel should do and what it should be. Fifty years later, those questions continue. More than half the Jews living in the United States today only know Israel as a state that keeps over 1.7 million Palestinians under military rule. To save the Jewish democratic state and the Jewish people, the dialogue must be strengthened, not silenced.