The Silence of the Israeli Intelligentsia

Weekend Edition
September 10 – 12, 2010

The Military and the Academy

By LISA TARAKI

The ongoing buzz in the Israeli media around statements issued by artists and academics against lecturing or performing in the colony of Ariel – built on occupied Palestinian land – betrays a stark contradiction in the positions of the Israeli intelligentsia. While they are now calling for a boycott of settlements, they have remained apathetic or even content regarding the far more significant heavy hand of the military-security-political establishment in society, including in academia and cultural institutions.

Another recent controversy has raged around academic freedom and the autonomy of the university. It was occasioned by attacks by two right-wing organizations, the Institute for Zionist Strategies and Im Tirtzu, on the alleged post-and anti-Zionist bias in social science departments at some Israeli universities.

The connection between the two controversies may not be apparent at first. However, they both demonstrate that the liberal-to-left Israeli intelligentsia’s mindset is fully in line with the reigning orthodoxy that accepts the military as a benign fact of life.

In response to the attacks on the universities, statements defending academic freedom and the autonomy of the university were quickly issued by the heads of Israel’s major universities, the association of academic faculty, and individual academics. Even the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities gave an opinion: “we cannot accept attempts by external and foreign bodies to intervene in appointing faculty members, determining curricula, and the manner in which material is taught.”

Does the Academy consider the military and the defense establishment “foreign bodies?” Apparently not.

The Ariel cultural center controversy was defined by prominent economics professor Ariel Rubinstein as an issue of normalization. He said of the petition signed by 150 academics and artists in support of the boycott of Ariel: “the petition’s objective is to undermine the normalization in the relationship between Israel and the occupied territories.”

It is remarkable that Rubinstein ignores the fact that his own institution, Tel Aviv University, provides a case par excellence of the close partnership between the Israeli academy and the occupation regime. Yet, neither he nor any of the other academics who have enthusiastically endorsed the boycott of a colonial outpost in the occupied Palestinian territory have been willing to examine their own institutions with the same critical eye.

Indeed, Tel Aviv University is among the major academic institutions involved in military R&D activities as well as work with the weapons industry. A recent publication of the university boasts of fifty-five projects there funded by the R&D authority at the ministry of defense.

It is instructive to note that while American academics are up in arms about the collaboration of their colleagues with the army under the Pentagon’s Human Terrain Teams and the Minerva Research Initiative, we find no similar protest from the professional associations of physicists, geographers, mathematicians, political scientists and others in Israel about the moral and professional implications of collaboration with their army.

The rare exceptions prove the rule, as in the case of the ineffective protests that accompanied the appointment of Colonel Pnina Sharvit-Baruch in the law faculty at Tel Aviv University. The protesters asserted that her interpretation of the law during Israel’s Gaza assault allowed the army to act in ways that constitute potential war crimes. The appointment went ahead. This is the same army colonel whose invitation to participate in Harvard’s International Humanitarian Law and Policy Forum last year created an outcry from American human rights activists.

The ease with which academics have weaved in and out of the military, the government – even the Israeli “civil administration” before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority – and the academy is quite natural and normal.

In fact, the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations renewed last week likely involve Israeli soldier-scholars steeped in this academic-military collusion that has for decades undercut Palestinian rights.

It might be claimed that the service of the Arabist professors in the occupation regime is a thing of the past. But their role in colonial governance is not a lone episode in the history of the Israeli academy. In fact, the collaboration of the academy with the military and intelligence services has moved to a new plane with the establishment of strategic studies institutions and think tanks and security studies departments and institutes, many of which are located at or affiliated with universities.

Only as an example, the Institute for National Security Studies, an external institute of Tel Aviv University, was instrumental in developing the doctrine of “disproportionate force” and the targeting of civilian infrastructure, based on the lessons of the war on Lebanon and later applied to deadly use in the war on Gaza in 2008-2009. Needless to say, this doctrine is a gross violation of international humanitarian law. Finally, and closer to home for Palestinians, both incidents show that when Israeli academics and intellectuals will it, they, and even their institutions, can speak in one voice in defense of principles.

In Israel, this voice has been silent for the past four decades in the face of repeated closures of Palestinian universities by military order and the imprisonment of thousands of students and academics for resisting the occupation. Palestinian cultural centers and initiatives have been stifled, from Jerusalem to Gaza. Discrimination against Palestinian students — citizens of Israel – at Israeli universities has hardly caught the attention of the academy.

I do not see universal values at work here.

Lisa Taraki is a sociologist at Birzeit University in Palestine.

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