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The closing of the Israeli mind

Even senior faculty will feel the stifling fear factor of Naftali Bennett's thought-controlling academic conduct code

Israel seems bent on controlling the major source of its innovative capacities: its open academic institutions. Lost in the bevy of headlines about everything from Amona, the appointment of a new US ambassador to Israel, the reduction of ex-president Moshe Katzav’s sentence for rape, further charges of sexual harassment by officials in high places and the humanitarian calamity in Syria, little attention has been paid to Minister of Education Naftali Bennett’s appointment of Professor Asa Kasher, the author of the IDF Code of Ethics, to compose an academic code for the faculty of the country’s universities and colleges. Nothing can undermine Israel’s productive energies, distort its creative propensities, eat away at its moral underpinnings, or destroy its democratic foundations more than patrolling its academic institutions.

For centuries, universities have traditionally provided a haven for the free flow of ideas. By creating a safe place against intrusion by those in power, they have offered a refuge within which diverse ideas can be raised, weighed and transformed into new knowledge. When campuses thrive — due to a mixture of curiosity and skepticism, critical thought and creativity, the ability to question and the skill to find answers — then their societies reap the benefits. Efforts to penetrate the protected space of the campus have inevitably limited debate, reduced intellectual production and, ultimately, brought about the deterioration of social, economic and cultural progress. The rise and fall of civilizations is intimately linked to the vibrancy of their centers of learning (see what is taking place in Turkey for just one contemporary example).

Nobody knows this better than Jews, who have survived and progressed because of their insistence, since the time of the prophets, on the value of discussion and the insights it generates. It is hardly surprising that the first stream of Zionists to arrive in Israel immediately established institutions of higher education (the Technion in 1912, the Hebrew University in 1925). Israel now boasts 66 universities and colleges — along with a global reputation for academic excellence. Based on the ingrained legacy of taking nothing for granted, its researchers have done pioneering work in science, medicine, technology, literature, philosophy, economics, history, linguistics, engineering, physics, chemistry, political science and the arts. The country boasts more Nobel laureates per capita than any other country in the world. Through constant cultivation of this rich tradition, Israel, justifiably, has been built on its brain power.

Yet for the past few years, this inheritance has been threatened repeatedly by attempts to intrude upon open enquiry on the campuses. Five years ago, Im Tirzu, then a student organization claiming to safeguard the legacy of Theodor Herzl, issued a “report” on political science departments, suggesting that their required courses have high doses of “anti-Zionist” reading material. A review of sociology departments published by the Institute for Zionist Strategy came up with similar findings. A public campaign was launched to revise the social science curricula to conform to the political vision of these external critics (certain departments were specifically singled out, individual professors were hounded, a blacklist of academics critical of those in power was circulated on the networks, benefactors were lobbied to withhold contributions, and the universities were served notice that they were expected to rein in faculty critical of government policies and worldviews).

This overt political intrusion into the halls of academe continues apace. The Israel Academic Monitor, staffed by avowedly conservative faculty, scrutinizes the lectures and publications of their colleagues for deviations from mainstream thought. Many political activities on campuses have been curtailed. Yet on basic principles of academic freedom university administrators have mostly held firm: they have underlined their adherence to academic standards as the sole criterion for appointments and promotion and continue to insist that the maintenance of their autonomy is the key to their — and by extension Israel’s — record of research excellence.

But now, following alterations in the high school curricula, especially in the area of civics and history (with the extraction of materials on alternative narratives and the injection of “Jewish” contents into subjects as diverse as literature and social studies), coalition politicians have once again shifted their sights to the institutions of higher education. Bennett’s decision to craft an Academic Code is meant to provide guidelines for what can and cannot be said in the classroom, what ideas can be raised and perhaps, too, what subjects can be discussed.

The Minister of Education’s appointment of Professor Kasher to prepare a draft document within four months was purportedly prompted by complaints received from students about political bias in the lecture halls. It was in all probability motivated by a broader distaste of elites — best represented by the universities — in ruling circles. And it was given a tailwind by a highly publicized and widely misrepresented incident at the Bezalel Academy of Arts — Israel’s foremost institute in the field. A first-year student hung a poster of a noose near a photo of Prime Minister Netanyahu, alongside a similar poster of the late Yitzhak Rabin in an SS uniform and added the question: “What here is incitement?” Bezalel was immediately attacked for fomenting discord, the student involved was interrogated for hours, and government zealots struck out against the excesses of academic freedom. The surge of anti-academic attacks, facts aside, has gathered momentum.

Despite the strong reaction in academe (hundreds of faculty members have signed a petition to withdraw the Kasher brief and the presidents of Israel’s universities have condemned the move), the Minister of Education — who also chairs the Council on Higher Education — is adamant that an academic code of conduct be compiled. His move is not only misconceived — surely in an era of massive information flows it is well-nigh impossible to withhold access to information and diverse views — the violation of academic freedom has severe consequences.

In the first instance, the mere threat of silencing diverse opinions is a deterrent to open academic expression. Junior faculty, concerned with their standing, may hold back. Even tenured professors admit that they’re afraid of being delegitimized and carefully weigh every word they utter. The fear factor is fast acting as a brake on lively and constructive debate. Consequently, the distance between the limitation of speech and the limitation of thought is shorter than one can imagine. Some of the signs are already in evidence: Israel has become a prime exporter of minds, with the brain drain now becoming a major cause of concern. The standing of Israeli institutions of higher education in international rankings (notably that of Shanghai and the Times Higher Education supplement) has dropped alarmingly.

Disconcertingly, the marketplace of ideas that produced Martin Buber and Ada Yonat (to mention but two of Israel’s foremost scholars) is contracting at a menacing speed. Without the pluralism and, yes, the cantankerous argumentation that is the stuff of academic life, few significant inventions can occur and Israel will fast be outdistanced by many eager, questioning, iconoclastic pursuers of knowledge bent on improving on the foundations it established.

There is no “Start-Up Nation” without the basic research conducted in institutions of higher learning. The post-truth era may yet stifle all creativity if it insists on policing those engaged in uncovering truths — however uncomfortable or disturbing. Thought control is the death knell of democracies: it replaces political contestation with political oversight and substitutes codes of supervision for the rule of law (which already prohibits incitement, racism, treason, and hate crimes). Israel, especially at this juncture, can ill-afford any assault to its most precious of treasures: the critical minds of its citizens forged in its free academic institutions.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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