On Behalf of Free Speech, Even When it Hurts

A distinguished academic who has vigorously opposed academic boycotts of Israel and a veteran senior administrator in American Jewish organisational life have protested the decision by the University of Southampton to cancel a planned academic conference challenging the legitimacy of the state of Israel under international law.  They have sent a letter in this regard to the Vice Chancellor of the University and published the letter in Inside Higher Education.  The link to the letter may be found at http://jkrfoundation.org/british-university-shouldnt-cancel-anti-israel-conference/.  I have also reproduced the letter below.


Dear Vice Chancellor Nutbeam,

We write as two North Americans who oppose academic boycotts and support academic freedom. While we find the upcoming conference on International Law and the State of Israel disturbing (it questions the right of Israel to exist, it includes panelists who have made gross antisemitic statements, etc.), we are shocked by the report that the university might cancel the conference.

Academic freedom requires that scholarly meetings, even ones that can rightly be criticized for promoting bigotry, are permitted to be held. The correct answer to the problems this conference poses is for others to use their own academic freedom to document what is wrong when, as here, history and principles are twisted to promote a bigoted political agenda. Especially given the University’s track record of supporting important and valued teaching and research in Jewish studies, it is well poised to answer speech with speech, rather than with suppression.

Canceling the conference because of security concerns is called, in the American context, a “heckler’s veto.” We ask Southampton not to eviscerate the right its faculty and students have to hear what the organizers of this conference present, even if what is presented is troubling and bigoted.

Campus security can surely handle a demonstration against the conference. Indeed people participating in such a protest would be exercising their own academic freedom so long as the event was allowed to continue.

We also worry about the precedent Southampton would set by canceling. Whether pro-Israel or anti-Israel (or pro-immigrant or anti-immigrant, or pro-gay rights or anti-gay rights, etc), it would effectively be saying that forces inside and outside the academic community who don’t like a particular point of view can shut down speech by threats. How can learning take place in such an environment? Would Southampton only then have conferences and speakers on “safe” topics? How can students learn to think when difficult issues and hot topics are no longer appropriate for campus programming?

We call on the university to allow this conference to take place, on campus, with adequate security. And we call on you and your colleagues to use your own academic freedom to speak out about both the bigotry that will likely be evidenced at the conference, and the danger to the academic enterprise when speech, even troubling and bigoted speech, is suppressed.

Cary Nelson, co-chair, Alliance for Academic Freedom
Kenneth Stern, executive director, Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation, executive committee, Alliance for Academic Freedom




Political Responsibility in a Democratic State

The much-anticipated and highly-divisive Israeli elections have come and gone, and I’d like to offer some reflections on what the elections mean about the nature of Israeli democracy.

The structure and integrity of the Israeli electoral system means that the outcome accurately represented the will of the people, proving beyond any doubt that a plurality of Israeli citizens would rather be ruled by the right than the left.

The Likud won fair and square.  Netanyahu used racist language to get out the vote, but there was no ballot tampering, let alone intimidation at the voting stations.  Had the electorate decided otherwise, the Zionist Union would be forming the government, and Netanyahu would have handed over the keys to the Prime Minister’s residence.  Netanyahu may be a demagogue but he is not a dictator.  Israel is still a democracy in which elected representatives serve with the consent of the people.  All citizens have the same political rights, although the Jewish majority enjoys social privileges that the Arab minority does not.

As a stable democracy, Israel remains qualitatively different from its Arab neighbours.  Arab states have a long tradition of serving narrow elites and being disconnected from the populace except as providers of public employment.  Ordinary Arabs, even in putative democracies, have felt little connection with the state apparatus.  The Arab uprisings strove to tear the old system down, and many Arabs wanted to install genuine democracies in its place.  For the most part, the uprisings failed, with authoritarianism back in place in Egypt and chaos in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

Arabs are bitterly angry and frustrated about their condition, yet because of the anti-democratic, non-inclusive tradition of politics in Arab states, they have not felt personally responsible for their states’ crimes.  Yet Arabs commonly blame Israelis for everything their state does.  This behaviour is in part irrational and even anti-Semitic, but it is also justified to the extent that in Israel the government is accountable to the electorate. In the Arab world, the only way to change things is to go out into the street and protest, thereby risking jail or death, or to take up arms  (and, of course, face an even greater risk of jail or death).

In Israel, people vote governments in and out power.  There has never been a coup or civil war. New governments do not carry out reprisals against the former government’s members and their friends and families.   Israelis and their supporters throughout the world can take justifiable pride in their country’s steadfast attachment to democratic government.  They should also realise that if governments are accountable to the people, the people are accountable for the governments they elect.



Polls and Elections

Surprisingly, amidst the obsessive attention in the world press to Israel’s pre-election polls, there’s been little discussion about whether historically these polls have predicted the election results.  During the 1980s and 90s there were six elections, and in most of them Labour did more poorly in the actual election than the pre-election polls suggested.

Even people who were dissatisfied with the Likud for one reason or another found that when they got into the voting booth they just couldn’t bring themselves to select the party of the secular, Ashkenazic elite.  There was too great a legacy of resentment against Labour, the successor to Mapai, the party that put new Jewish immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East in tent cities and treated them with condescension, if not outright scorn.  Thirty years after the Great Immigration of the 1950s, Labour was still associated with cutting off the forelocks of Yemenite immigrant males or belittling Moroccan immigrants for their hearty gutturals.

Since the 90s, Labour has suffered for another reason – its association with the now-deceased Oslo peace process.  Labour has been considered soft, “defeatist,” a party of “freyerim” (suckers).  Unable to gain much ground on the Palestinian issue, in the last election in 2013 Labour focused on Israel’s growing economic inequity and weakening social safety net.  It helped a bit, but not enough to revive the party, which got only about eleven per cent of the vote.

If as the polls are predicting the Zionist Union (Labour plus Tzippi Livni’s Ha-Tenuah party) wins several seats more than the Likud, it will be a sign that Labour has finally overcome a dual curse of bygone hegemony and failed peacemaking.  But even if the Zionist Union wins a plurality of the vote, a centre-left coalition will be difficult to form and no less difficult to maintain.  Much of Israel’s Jewish electorate is still more hawkish than Labour’s current incarnation.  If nothing else, though, in this election Labour may get rid of some old ghosts and reclaim a place for itself in Israeli politics, a place that it has all but lost over the fourteen years since its last government under Ehud Barak.

The Occupation as Chronotope?

Israel is widely criticized for its occupation of Palestinian land.  Which land?  Does “the Occupation” refer to Israel’s 1967 conquests or does it include the pre-1967 state as well?  For the international community and for many critics of Israel, as well as many of Israel’s more dovish supporters, the Occupation refers to the former.  For a small but vocal minority in the western world, and larger numbers in the Muslim and Arab world, the Occupation refers to the state itself.

How one conceives the Occupation in time affects how one conceives it in space.  The Occupation is what the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin called a chronotope, a “time-space,” in which time is visible, and space is perceived through the lens of history.

For many years, the chronotope of an Occupation that began in 1967 made it possible for Israeli Jews to conceive of the Occupation as a temporary situation, an irregularity.  Normalization would eventually occur – not a return to the precise June 5 1967 borders, which most Israelis believed to be indefensible, but the drawing of secure borders and establishment of peaceful relations with its neighbours.  The expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza in the 1980s did not result in annexation, leaving the whole enterprise in a state of temporal suspense.

The First Intifadah of 1987-1993 forced Israelis to realize that the Occupation could not continue indefinitely without some major change in policy.  In 1991, Mark Heller and Sari Nusseibeh mooted a “two-state” solution to end the Occupation.  At the time, the idea was furiously attacked in Israel by all but the far left, but a decade later it had gained currency.  This was because of the Oslo Process.  By the time the process began in 1993, the Occupation was already a quarter-century old, but with the establishment of the Palestine Authority, Israelis began to conceive of “Palestine” as something separate from “Israel.”  Granted, the PA had highly limited powers, and when Israeli Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, he had not embraced Palestinian statehood.  But a critical mass of Israelis were moving towards accepting a structural differentiation between Israel and Palestine.  The Occupation seemed more provisional than ever.

The Oslo Process was destroyed by many actors, Jewish and Arab alike.  But the Second Intifadeh, which killed over 1000 Israeli civilians in spectacular acts of terrorism, is the key for understanding the transformation of the Occupation in much of Israeli political discourse from provisional to permanent. Israelis who came of age during or before the 1990s could conceive of the Occupation as transitory, but for those who have come of age since 2000, the Occupation has assumed a new form as lacking a beginning and therefore having no end.

This way of thinking causes many Israeli Jews who have never adopted the ideology of settlement activists to passively accept the steady expansion within the West Bank of Jewish settlements, the expropriation of Palestinian private lands, and the encircling of eastern Jerusalem with Jewish developments to forestall territorial continuity of Arab territories in a Palestinian state.  The chronotope of eternal mastery over the land makes possible the Israeli hard Right’s confident discourse about annexing Area C, the largest of the three areas into which the Palestinian Authority is divided.  And this way of thinking accounts for increasingly violent Israeli military interventions in Gaza, carried out against what is assumed to be an utterly irreconcilable enemy.

In another blog I will write about the second chronotope, of the Occupation as beginning in 1948, and how it affects the thinking of Palestinians and their supporters about the space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

L’Affaire Salaita

For the past two months the academic blogosphere has been filled with debate about the case of Professor Steven Salaita, who was poised to accept a tenured position in Native American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. A few days ago, that appointment was blocked by the University’s Chancellor.

The reason for the blockage (or, if one believes that the hire was fully effected, rescinding) of the hire has to do with Salaita’s public comments, made via Twitter. Intriguingly, the debate has had little to do with Salaita’s published scholarship (he wrote a monograph in 2006 comparing the concepts of indigeneity, settler colonialism, and land rights amongst Native Americans and Palestinians) or even his many journalistic opinion pieces, which were published in 2011.  Instead, Salaita’s academic future has been hanging on a few dozen 140-character-or-less tweets, many of them made during this summer’s Gaza war.   As anyone who has been following the story knows, the tweets are vulgar and nasty.  Some of Salaita’s defenders term them provocative, but his critics would call them incendiary. Debate has gone back and forth whether they cross the line from anti-Zionism into antisemitism and whether they advocate violence.

The real questions, though, are:  does the principle of academic freedom apply to extramural speech?  Does that freedom apply across the board to hostile speech directed against any individual or group?   Is extra-mural speech an issue only when it touches upon the scholar’s areas of expertise and so might reflect on her/his competence?  Are nasty comments licit regardless of what kind of group is being attacked, or only if the object of abuse is perceived as powerful, oppressive, exploitative, or just plain wrong-headed?  That is, are abusive tweets by academics against Israel, the NRA, the NSA, and the Koch Brothers permitted, yet equally harsh comments about Palestinians, gun-control advocates, anarchists, and Pacifica Radio grounds for censure or dismissal?

All this brings up two related questions:  Is the academy a continuation of the political battlefield or a shelter from it?  Does the university replicate conflict or strive to transcend it?  

I have no answer to these questions, and I would not trust anyone in the University to answer them for me.  Even constitutional protections of speech have limits, and in universities scholars may not say whatever they want, however and whenever they want to. But the bar for unacceptable speech must be set very high, and it cannot be set at different heights for different kinds of opinions.   A few – well, even more than a few – outrageous ideologues on all sides of the spectrum may be a small price to pay for the freedoms that lie at the core of our humanity.

At the link below, two scholars at the University of Illinois discuss these questions in an unusually informed and civil manner:


What was – or is – the Nakba?

Israel and Hamas are once again on the brink of war.  Palestinian support for a two-state option is plummeting.  The brutal slayings of three Israeli yeshiva students on the West Bank have been followed by reprisals by Israeli civilians against Arabs on an order not seen since the creation of the state.  In the days and weeks ahead, battles will be waged with weapons and with words.  And for the Palestinians, one of the most powerful of those words will be Nakba – the catastrophe of 1948.

The political use of the Arabic word nakba (disaster) goes back to 1920, when Arabs decried European colonial rule over portions of the now-defunct Ottoman empire.  While the 1948 war was still raging, Constantine Zureiq, a professor at the American University in Beirut, wrote a book, “The Meaning of the Disaster,” which used the term Nakba to describe the internal weaknesses and failings of the Arab world that had made Israel’s victory possible.

Over time, the term Nakba has come to be associated with the forced migration of the Palestinians in 1948 and the Israeli government’s refusal to let the refugees return after the war’s end.  Most Israeli Jews and supporters of Israel have a visceral, negative reaction to the word.  A recent Israeli law (which has not yet been tested in the courts) allows the government to fine publicly-funded institutions that commemorate Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning.  This legislation is colloquially referred to as “the Nakba law.”

Why is this word so threatening?  When Israeli Jews hear the word Naqba, they infer a denial of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.  They associate the Naqba with the Palestinian Right of Return, which, if exercised, could theoretically lead to millions of Palestinian refugees (those surviving from 1948, and their descendants) coming to Israel and claiming their lands, upon which hundreds of Israeli communities now sit.

Denial of the Nakba is less about what happened in 1948 than about why.  It is about causes and consequences of events, not events themselves.   Mainstream Israeli narratives of 1948 often underestimate the number of Palestinian refugees, but many Israeli Jews would acknowledge that in 1948 hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their homes – and their homeland.  Along with that acknowledgment, though, comes the claim that the Palestinians brought disaster upon themselves by not accepting the United Nations Partition plan of November 1947.  Israeli denial of the Nakba is a denial of responsibility, and hence of culpability.

For Palestinians, mourning for their lost homeland is inseparable from rage against all the actors – the international community, the Arab states, and, most of all, Israel – who, they feel, brought, and continue to bring, disaster upon them. Nakba is more than a description, more than a lament – it is an accusation of crimes past and present.

It is hard to deny the Nakba, however, without using the word itself.  Israeli newspapers now write about the Naqba more than ever before.  Palestinian political rhetoric has been accepted into Israeli public conversation.

During the Cold War, conservative West German newspapers referred to East Germany in quotes, as the “DDR,” and in communist East Germany West Berlin’s separate status as part of the Federal Republic of Germany was obscured by referring to it as Berlin (West).  Such linguistic trickery served only to strengthen awareness of the reality of both East Germany and West Berlin.  The Cold War of the 1940s through 1980s is now over, and East Germany and West Berlin have ceased to exist as political entities. But the Nakba continues, and it will continue to continue, until Israel acknowledges its past and the Palestinians, including Hamas, legitimize Israel’s future. In the current climate, neither appears likely.

What is Yom Ha-Atsma’ut?

Israel has once again celebrated Yom Ha-Atsma’ut, and Palestinians have once again commemorated the Nakba.  These terms are used so often, and uncritically, that we are often not sure what they really mean. In this post I will talk about the first; and in another I will address the second.

Yom Ha-Atsma’ut means “Independence Day,” taken from the 1948 War that Israeli Jews call the state’s war of independence.  It is also called Milhemet Ha-Shichrur – the War of Liberation.  But independence or liberation from whom?

From the British?  They officially withdrew from Palestine the day the state was declared.  The guerrilla war that Zionist militias had been waging against the British was now over.

From the Palestinians?  The Palestinians claimed a state but did not possess one, and by May of 1948 the Palestinian forces had been seriously weakened.

From the Arab states?  Jordan coveted Palestine, and other Arab states had interests and ambitions of their own for the country, but Palestine did not belong to them, and Israel’s war against them was not a war of independence from the Arab world.

So, from whom, then, was Israel seeking independence?  The answer is vague yet vast:  from the diaspora experience itself, from centuries of statelessness, from persecution that had culminated in the genocide of two-thirds of European Jewry.

Unlike other wars of liberation fought around the world in the mid 20th century, Israel’s enemy was not a colonial master or a dominant neighbour but another people and other states that claimed the same land.  Israel is now at peace, albeit a cold one, with two of its front-line neighbours, and the others are either unable or unwilling  to engage Israel in a major conflict.   But the Palestinians remain, in exile and under occupation.  Israel won its war of independence, but its liberation from the often tragic Jewish past will remain incomplete as long as the Israel-Palestine conflict is not resolved.


Is Israel a place of refuge for the Jewish people?

In yesterday’s Haaretz, Mira Sucharov uses my book Jews and the Military as a means of opening a conversation about how Jews in the diaspora perceive their country’s armies versus the IDF, and how service in the former is symbolically far less meaningful than service in the latter:


(The article is probably behind Haaretz’s firewall but I have posted it in its entirety via Twitter and Facebook.)

Professor Sucharov’s discussion touches on a related point that is worth dealing with directly:  does the sovereign state of Israel, and in particular its powerful military, render Jews in Israel safer than those who dwell beyond its borders?

Jews visiting Israel from abroad almost invariably feel safe when in Israel.  They are in a state dominated by a substantial Jewish majority, a state where Jews need never deny or hide their Jewishness or fear being persecuted because of their religion or nationality. The ubiquity of armed Israeli soldiers is an eloquent sign and source of this feeling of being powerful, in charge, and at home.  A psychological sense of security translates into a sense of personal safety.

Since the state of Israel was founded it has taken in millions of Jews who faced persecution in the Middle East, North Africa, eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union.  In recent years there has been increased Jewish immigration from France, where many Jews have been shaken by horrific, albeit isolated, incidents like the murder of a rabbi and three Jewish children in Tolouse in March of 2012. And in the past months there has been a spurt of Jewish immigration to Israel from Ukraine, whose Jews are not fleeing persecution so much as pervasive uncertainty about the country’s future.

Yet at the same time Jews in Israel and the diaspora alike fear for the country’s security and long-term survival.   Since the state was established, over 20,000 Israeli soldiers (the vast majority of them Jewish) have died, and another 4000 civilians (again, mostly Jewish) have died during wars or at the hands of terrorists.  As many as 100,000 Israeli veterans are considered disabled.  These numbers dwarf the number of Jews in the diaspora who have been killed or wounded in terrorist incidents since 1948.

Today Israel is vulnerable to rocket bombardment from southern Lebanon, and there is widespread fear that despite ongoing negotiations with the international community, Iran may develop a nuclear weapon, which, the government claims, would place Israel in existential danger.

So where are Jews safer – in the diaspora or in Israel?  What does it mean to be “safe”?  Is safety a matter of physical security or is it more a state of mind?


Israel’s Demand for Recognition as a “Jewish State”

Benjamin Netanyahu demands that the Palestine Authority recognise Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.  For Netanyahu, this demand is a win-win.  If the Palestinians don’t accept it, he can blame them for causing the negotiations between Israel and the PA to fail.  If they do, he has a weapon against the Palestinian claim of a right of return for the refugees of 1948 and their descendants, who number in the millions.

But Netanyahu is not merely being opportunistic – he, like many Israelis, truly believes that there can’t be peace until the Palestinians recognise the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the midst of the Arab world.  Why is this demand being made of the Palestinians, when it was not made of Egypt or Jordan when Israel signed peace treaties with those two countries?   Because pre-1948 Palestine and post-1967 Israel are two sides of the same coin – they take up the same territory.  The wars of 1948 and 1967, which created the state of Israel and enlarged its borders, turned the Palestinians into refugees and erased Palestine from the map.

In Israel one hears a lot about the Palestinians as a military or demographic threat.  But for most Israelis the Palestinians present, no less, a psychological threat – a challenge to the country’s very right to exist. That is why a powerful Israel insists that the feeble Palestine Authority accept it as a Jewish state.

The American government appears to support Netanyahu’s position.  Netanyahu’s ability to set the agenda on this, like other major issues in the ongoing negotiations between Israel and the PA, reflect the power disparity between them.  The disparity exists on all levels – military, geo-political, and economic. Although many Israelis and supporters of Israel see things differently, the Obama administration has been and remains firmly supportive of Israel.  Ironically, Netanyahu is much weaker in dealing with his own party and those to its right than with either the Americans or the Palestinians.