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The strong-minded Israelis we need to be

It’s the duty of a university campus to foster open debate not bar unpopular ideas, as Im Tirtzu has demanded
Opening of the 2012-2013 academic year at Ben Gurion University (illustrative photo: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev / Dani Machlis)
Opening of the 2012-2013 academic year at Ben Gurion University (illustrative photo: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev / Dani Machlis)

For the past few months I have been involved in a conversation with members of Im Tirtzu about what it means to be an Israeli. The group, which describes itself on its website as “an extra-parliamentary movement that works to strengthen and advance the values of Zionism in Israel,” has interpreted their mission as one of becoming the “watchdog” of Zionist values.

The battle lines are clearly drawn between Im Tirtzu – which objects to the notion of a university as a town square that allows for the expression of all ideas, particularly those they with which they disagree – and those of us who believe that this is the very duty of a university. The organization derides “exposing” students to speakers and opinions that some might consider anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli and claims that by inviting such speakers, we are validating their opinions.

Although this discussion began a few years ago when the group decided to appoint itself as “monitor” of Israeli universities, the current iteration over the last few weeks has focused on the BGU lecture series, “Who is an Israeli,” organized by members of the Israel Studies track – and particularly, the decision to invite MK Haneen Zoabi to speak in March. No matter that she was just one of the dozens of speakers that have been invited over the past few years or that organizers made it clear that her views are hers alone, Im Tirtzu objected to her very presence – as if as if ignoring her views would actually make them disappear.

Given Im Tirtzu’s self-appointed role, I cannot help but ask: who has given them the mandate to decide who is an Israeli?

Ultimately, we are a nation of over 8 million citizens who hold at least 10 million different opinions. I would maintain that if there is one trait that does define us as Israelis, it is our outspokenness; our determination to express our many different opinions. It is the agreement not to agree but at the same time the tolerance to hear each other out and respect other viewpoints. I believe that the heart of the Israeli experience is the hutzpa to have an opinion that differs from your neighbors. It is the irritation caused by hearing something that is foreign to your ideals, beliefs and feelings, yet to understand that it is legitimate for others to voice it. This is the basis of our democracy and the secret to Israel’s success.

The international bestseller Start-Up Nation points to these kinds of characteristics as the keys to Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit. The classic opinionated Israeli has become the force behind the country’s “creative energy.” It is this individualistic nature that has honed our national ability to improvise and invent, particularly in life-threatening situations. If we lose the willingness to argue, debate and disagree – with one another and with ourselves – we risk closing ourselves off from the world and from one another.

A strong Israel is one where everyone’s opinion can be heard without fear, if only to help us learn to articulate why we don’t agree. This is what it means to be Israeli. This is also the role of a university – to help students learn to think critically about science and about life. This is how societies grow strong from within.

Then again, you might want to disagree.

Im Tirtzu has published a response to this op-ed

About the Author
Professor Rivka Carmi is President of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev