It’s not easy to find a country in the Middle East whose universities honor academic freedom as we know it in most Western countries. Syria is a police state, comparable in some ways to North Korea or Myanmar. Iran has substantially become one. Egypt’s security police maintain a chilling presence on campus. The one country that maintains academic freedom is Israel, though of course not in the occupied territories. The comparative climate for intellectual debate in the region is too often ignored or slighted in discussions promoted by the various boycott movements. Simple intellectual honesty and political accuracy requires that every discussion of Israeli academic conduct be framed with a reminder of the regional context. Otherwise, inadequately informed audiences can become victims of demagoguery and an exceptionalist fantasy of Israeli monstrosity be promoted.
But the dynamic of debate in the Israeli academy has suddenly changed, and part of the debate is now being conducted in American venues. As Inside Higher Ed reported last month, a Ben-Gurion University political science professor, Neve Gordon published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, in Counterpunch and in the Guardian that endorsed a gradually expanding international boycott of Israel. In her response, also published in the LA Times, Ben-Gurion University’s president, Rivka Carmi ventured not only to castigate Gordon but also to redefine academic freedom in ways contrary to traditions of the American Association of University Professors.
With these very troubling ideas circulating in the United States, a clear need for the AAUP to address the story has arisen. That need is underlined by the fact that several American scholars writing about the Middle East have either lost their jobs or had their tenure cases challenged because of their scholarly or extramural publications. Statements by Carmi and other Israeli administrators thus have the potential to help undermine academic freedom not only in Israel but elsewhere. These are in every sense worldwide debates.
As the Inside Higher Ed story points out, Gordon has been critical of Israeli conduct for some time. His protest columns regularly appear in The Nation here in the United States and in the Guardian in Britain, and he is the author of a 2008 book called Israel’s Occupation, published by the University of California Press. All this work, including the LA Times column, falls within his areas of academic specialization. It ranges from scholarly publication to extramural speech. It is all without question covered by academic freedom. Carmi’s assertion that the LA Times column “oversteps the boundaries of academic freedom — because it has nothing to do with it” is wholly unsupportable.
Gordon’s column, it is worth noting, adopts a somewhat different persona than a number of his other pieces about Israeli policy. It is not, for example, a straightforward protest against Israeli military actions, but rather a confessional staging of his anguished journey toward boycott advocacy: “as I watch my two boys playing in the yard, I am convinced that it is the only way that Israel can be saved from itself.” He has, he is suggesting, had a breakthrough amounting to a recovery of his humanity, something thereby that his opponents implicitly lack. Throughout his 2009 responses to the Gaza invasion he has been moving in that direction, suggesting earlier that he opposed Israel’s military action despite Hamas rockets falling near the home he shares with his children, and arguing that the invasion is distorting the humanity of Israeli children.
I am willing to believe that this tactic is both genuine and a calculated rhetorical strategy, but in either case it has probably contributed to the intensity of the response, since it frames the LA Times piece not as political polemic but as a personal narrative about, as he puts it, “the question that keeps me up at night.” It thus has special power to move ordinary readers, and many of those readers here and abroad have responded passionately. Publishing the column in the United States, rather than Israel, was, to be sure, a deliberate provocation. It moved the argumentative terrain to that of Israel’s major military and political ally, and to the home of many of Israel’s and his own university’s most important donors. The affront was not simply in what he said but where he said it, though it is hardly the first time Israeli scholars of both the Right and the Left have brought these debates to American shores. The response both here and in Israel has been intense. As we saw in the Ward Churchill case, academic freedom does not always fare well in a public firestorm.
The public response called for a principled defense of academic freedom by President Carmi. Instead, she made herself part of the public outcry against Gordon. Worse still, Carmi has sought to narrow academic freedom and undermine the protections it offers, calling Gordon’s column an effort “to advocate a personal opinion, which is really demagoguery cloaked in academic theory.” The notion that a political scientist cannot combine academic arguments with conclusions, theory with advocacy, strikes at the heart of the principle that academics have the right to advise the public and seek an impact on public policy. As Matthew Finkin and Robert Post argue effectively in their 2009 book For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom, faculty speech in scholarly venues and in the classroom cannot be protected (and cannot fully serve society) if faculty members are not also free to deploy their expertise in the public sphere without fear of government or university reprisal.
Gordon calls for a boycott of the state of Israel, thereby advocating something much more comprehensive than the focused boycott of academic institutions that the AAUP opposes. Some Israeli commentary claims Gordon’s remarks amount to treason, a dangerous and overheated accusation that responsible opinion must reject. Gordon is in fact performing his job as a political scientist and following reasoned moral and professional standards in doing so. Even if he were not a political scientist, he would have the right to say these things, but as a political scientist who writes about Israeli policy he has a disciplinary justification to offer advice and opinion in the public sphere. But academic freedom should protect still more extreme statements than those Gordon has made; it should hold harmless a faculty member who argues that his or her country has no moral or political legitimacy and thus no right to exist.
Extramural statements by faculty are especially vulnerable in times of national crisis. The United States can hardly be said to have protected them during World War I or in the McCarthy period. Many in the Middle East, including many Israelis, consider themselves to be in a permanent state of war. In many area countries Gordon would already be imprisoned or worse. In Israel his right to public speech is being eloquently defended by many both within and without the academy — but not, deplorably, by his own university administration. On several Israeli campuses petitions supporting Gordon have circulated, and a number of scholars have come to his defense. Once again, such robust debate hardly typifies all area countries.
Since Gordon is tenured and cannot be fired, Carmi instead bellowed that he “has forfeited his ability to work effectively within the university setting.” A few days before publishing her LA Times piece, Carmi had already urged Gordon to resign, a view endorsed by Ben-Gurion University’ rector and faculty member Jimmy Weinblatt.
On August 28th, Ilana Curiel reported in Israel News that Carmi and Weinblatt were also exploring options for removing Gordon as department head. There, it should be clear, Ben-Gurion administrators are on more secure ground. In the United States a faculty member serving as an administrator -- including a department chair -- is essentially an at-will employee. He or she can be removed from an administrative post and returned to the faculty if they displease their supervisor. In a public case like this one, of course, Carmi will be contemplating public fallout from a decision to force Gordon out of his chairmanship, so a good deal more than simple line administrative authority is at stake.
Indeed it has been clear from the outset, as Carmi openly acknowledged in an August 27th letter to Ben-Gurion faculty, that donor anger is a major factor in her attacks on Gordon. Inside Higher Ed reported that Amos Drory, Ben-Gurion’s vice president for external affairs, wrote to complaining donors to say “the university is currently exploring the legal options to take disciplinary action.” It is not the first time fund-raising priorities, not principle, have shaped administrative understandings of academic freedom, but that does not blunt the lesson that this represents one of the most severe threats to academic freedom.
Carmi’s own academic freedom, one may note, would have allowed her to reject Gordon’s views while asserting his right to hold them. That is, in effect, what Gordon recommended: “She has to cater to the people that provide the money, so a strong letter of condemnation of my views would have been fine with me. But there’s a difference between saying you disagree wit me, and threatening me.” Instead she mounted an international assault and sought to gut academic freedom in the process. While Gordon has job security, his vulnerability to myriad other forms of internal reprisal is obvious. There are many kinds of research support and institutional recognition that require administrative endorsement. More serious still is the message Carmi has sent to untenured and contingent faculty: exercise your academic freedom at your peril. The chilling effects at Ben-Gurion University have hardened into a deep freeze. There is reason for principled faculty to question the president’s ability to serve in her position.
Cary Nelson is national president of the American Association of University Professors.