- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Last week, the Los Angeles Times published a courageous and moving op-ed entitled “Boycott Israel” by Israeli political scientist Neve Gordon, in which he reluctantly endorsed the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) campaign against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Gordon is a tenured lecturer and department head at Ben Gurion University, and the author of several important scholarly works, including the recent book Israel’s Occupation (2008). He is a committed Zionist who was wounded during his military service in an elite IDF paratroop unit. He is also a long-time member of the peace camp in Israel.
In his op-ed, Gordon argued that Israel is at an historic crossroads and that “massive international pressure” is the only way that Israel “can be saved from itself.” For this reason, he says, he reluctantly supports the BDS campaign, “to ensure that Israel respects its obligations under international law and that Palestinians are granted the right to self-determination.”
As one would expect, his article has provoked a firestorm of controversy. Israel’s consul-general in Los Angeles wrote a letter to the president of Ben-Gurion University, Dr. Rivka Carmi, warning that Gordon’s remarks could undermine fund-raising efforts. He suggested that the university create a Center for Zionist studies to “help dispel the lies disseminated by Gordon in the name of your university.” But instead of defending the core principle of academic freedom, President Carmi said that Gordon’s views were “destructive,” “morally reprehensible,” and an “abuse [of] the freedom of speech prevailing in Israel and at BGU.” Even more disturbingly, she went on to say that “academics who entertain such resentment toward their country are welcome to consider another professional and personal home.” A spokesman for the university added “We’re proud to have a full range of political views at the university, and I want to live in a country that protects freedom of speech, but Gordon’s remarks are beyond the pale.”
I have three comments. First, as Richard Silverstein points out in his own blog, neither President Carmi nor her spokesperson seem to understand what academic freedom is all about. The tenure system and the principle of academic freedom exists for one main reason: to permit academics to say what they think without fear of retribution (provided, of course, that they aren’t advocating a violent crime or some equally heinous act). Reasonable people can take issue with what Gordon wrote, of course, but nothing he said is even remotely near the boundaries of acceptable discourse in a democracy that values free speech and academic freedom. I’m not quarreling with President Carmi’s right to disagree with Gordon; I’m just saying that her statements are at odds with the core principle of academic freedom, a principle that senior academic administrators are supposed to defend. She can’t fire him, of course, but for her to call his op-ed an “an abuse of freedom of speech” was clearly intended to have a chilling effect on discourse. And trying to stifle the free exchange of ideas is not what we normally expect university presidents to do.
Second, this incident illustrates the harmful effects that the occupation is having on Israel itself. As opinions harden and the Israeli body politic moves rightward, dissenting voices inevitably get squelched or encouraged to leave the country. Any and all criticisms of Israel’s conduct get attributed to either enduring anti-Semitism (when made by gentiles) or labeled as treason or “self-hatred” (when made by Jews). Israel’s universities, once a legitimate source of national pride, become more and more politicized, with faculty expected to stay within the “acceptable” national consensus and with donors encouraged to fund programs intended to propagandize rather than enlighten.
Third, this sort of thing is going to become more widespread as long as the occupation continues. If we don’t get a two-state solution soon, Israel will be stuck running an apartheid system in the Occupied Territories and inflicting additional suffering on its Palestinian subjects. Defenders of the status quo in Israel and abroad will have to rely on more elaborate rationalizations and forms of deception to defend this situation, and they will wind up denouncing critics in increasingly harsh terms. This situation won’t be good for anyone, but that’s where we are headed if current efforts to bring about a two-state solution fail.
I might add that I dont support the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement” myself. This is partly because I’m uncomfortable with even mild forms of collective punishment and partly because, like Gordon himself, I do worry about the double-standard issue (i.e., if you think it’s ok to boycott Israel, why not China or Burma or any number of other countries?). And I’m especially leery of efforts to interfere with academic exchanges, because I don’t like anything that interferes with free speech or obstructs the free flow of ideas. But I respect Gordon’s motives and his op-ed did make me wonder: what if he’s correct and this is in fact the only way to get a two-state solution? Making people think is something scholars are supposed to do, right?
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images