Alice Pinheiro Walla

Academic anti-Israel bias and responsibility in public discourse

In an interview with Israeli Government Spokesman Eylon Levy, Sky News’ Kay Burley suggested that the lopsided deal in which Israel agreed to release a higher number of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for hostages kidnapped by Hamas was evidence that Israel valued Palestinian lives less than Israeli ones. 

To clarify: the Palestinians on Hamas’ exchange list were not kidnapped and held hostage by Israel, but women and teenagers held in Israeli jails for acts of violence including attempted murder or inciting terror against Israelis. It was a terrible deal for Israel, but a sacrifice it was willing to make, not without much debate and public pressure, in order to release civilian women and children, including babies, who were taken hostage by terrorists during the October 7th attacks. 

However absurd the accusations made by the Sky News anchor, her attitude is emblematic. In personal conversations and interactions over social media, I came to realize that many academics with very strong opinions about Israel barely know anything about Israel and the history of the Israel-Hamas conflict. Their main source of information are other Israelophobic academics. Israel is presumed “evil”, and this colors what these academics consider reliable accounts of history and events in the media. Israeli sources are discredited or ignored. Some are using jargon and slogans that seem to be taken out of a propaganda handbook. Many romanticize the actions of terrorists as legitimate struggles for freedom. 

Several academics are endorsing revisionist views of history that support the narrative of Hamas. They assume that the whole state of Israel is “occupied territory” and take all Israelis to be “Jewish settlers.” They ignore that the partition of the British Mandate for Palestine was based on a resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly, and that this is considered the legal basis for the foundation of the State of Israel and a separate Arab state in 1948; they ignore that occupied territories are actually the areas seized in 1967 during the the Six-Day War and that Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005.

These academics accuse Israel of being an ethno-nationalist state that grants citizenship rights only to Jews, despite the fact that Arab Israelis make up around 20% of Israeli citizenry, have equal rights, and are represented in the Knesset and professions in Israeli society, including the police. These academics portray Israelis as “white supremacists” while ignoring that Jews living in Israel are highly diverse and that, despite all its problems, Israel is a democratic, multiethnic state. They are indifferent to the fact that Palestinian leaders repeatedly rejected offers of Palestinian statehood and that Hamas explicitly admitted that it is not interested in a resolution of the conflict with Israel. 

Some are convinced that the living conditions in Gaza prior to October 7th were so dire as to be comparable to life in slavery, in an open prison or in the Warsaw ghetto, and that these conditions justified the atrocities committed against Israelis on October 7th. This despite the fact that, according to 2022 data from the UN’s Human Development Report Office (HDRO), Palestinian areas were given a Human Development Index (HDI) value of 0.715, “which put the country in the High human development category—positioning it at 106 out of 191 countries and territories.” Israelophobic academics firmly believe that Gaza is extremely poor and that the actions of the State of Israel required for its self-defense are for the sake of the collective punishment of Gazans. Narratives like these are repeatedly disseminated in the media, and academics are often cited to confer credibility. In their view, Israel is an illegitimate state based on colonialism and apartheid; consequently, for the “occupation” of Palestine to end, the State of Israel must cease to exist. While Israelophobic academics condemn Israel in the strongest moral terms, one must wonder if these academics have seriously contemplated the disastrous implications of what they are so passionately advocating.

The other side of the coin of academic anti-Israel bias is the unwillingness to treat Palestinians as morally accountable human beings with any form of agency. To treat someone as a person is to regard them as a moral equal; and this entails holding her morally responsible for her actions, within reasonable constraints. Despite all the sympathy and concern for Palestinian lives one sees in the West, the attitude towards Palestinians reveals a moral condescension that nears the offensive. Palestinians are taken to be so poor, so oppressed, so worthy of pity, that they cannot be held accountable for their actions even when they murder, torture, rape, mutilate, lynch and incinerate Israeli civilians. It is telling that it took eight weeks for the United nations to acknowledge the horrific sexual violence committed against Israeli women and men on October 7th. Several international women rights groups were silent about the rapes, while some women rights activists publicly denied that the rapes had taken place. The tendency to exonerate Palestinians from moral accountability goes as far as to completely ignore the explicit antisemitic and genocidal statements of Hamas leaders. It is simply assumed that what jihadists really want is freedom from dire poverty and oppression, and not what they openly declare they want. This is why it is often difficult to dissociate “anti-Zionist” discourse from blatant antisemitism. 

Hamas uses Western condescension and willful ignorance as a crucial tool in its international warfare, which consists in an delegitimization campaign of the State of Israel. Delegitimizing Israel contributes to the public perception of violence and calls for the destruction of the Jewish state as morally permissible forms of resistance. In Canada and elsewhere, this can be seen in attempts to justify criminal actions targeting Jewish owned businesses and Jewish communities, as well as boycotts and hostility against Jewish students as instances of a “right to expression” against the war in Gaza.

Knowledge is relevant for passing moral judgment on the actions of the State of Israel. Academics have been doing this publicly and with appeal to their academic credentials but without concern for the complexity of the conflict or factual accuracy. As Israeli philosopher David Enoch pointed out, “when public intellectuals make confident but factually unfounded proclamations on such matters, they degrade their respective fields, and to the extent that they have an effect in the real world they risk taking part in bringing about disastrous policies. In short, they betray their role as intellectuals, serving to fuel legitimate doubts about how much they know or care about the real world, indeed about real people.”

About the Author
Alice Pinheiro Walla is Associate Professor of Philosophy at McMaster University, Canada. She was born in Brazil. She is a Kant scholar by training and held academic positions in Germany, Austria and Ireland before moving to Canada. She is an active member of her synagogue, where she helps as gabbait, leads religious services and reads torah.
Related Topics
Related Posts