Left-wing Israeli academics, shunned at home and abroad – Or Tshuva

This piece, by Or Tshuva, is on Haaretz.com.

Growing support for an academic boycott of Israel abroad and subtle censorship at home make it hard for Israeli scholars to play a role in moving their country toward peace.

Countless words have been written in the past week about British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s decision to cancel his participation in the upcoming Israeli Presidential Conference on the biggest issues facing humanity. While many have asked whether an academic boycott of Israel can achieve similar results to the one of apartheid South Africa or questioned the wisdom of Hawking’s decision, little attention has been paid to some of the people on the receiving end of the boycott: Israeli academics.

Left-wing Israeli academics have in the past few years faced a great challenge. Threatened with censorship, prosecution and ostracism in their home universities, they have been subtly forced to hold their tongues when it comes to publicly expressing their political opinions. In 2009, Neve Gordon nearly lost his job as a politics professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev after writing an op-ed arguing that Israel has become an apartheid state that can only be saved by an international boycott. One year later, in 2010, world-renowned art theorist Ariella Azoulay was denied tenure by Bar-Ilan University apparently due to her pro-Palestinian political views. These incidents send Israeli academics a clear message: tolerance of critical opinions is running out.

It is for exactly this reason that many Israelis pursue academic careers abroad. But in the international academic community, they often find that no matter how far left or pro-peace they are, their “Israeliness” remains an obstacle. Universities and scholars that explicitly support boycotting Israeli academic institutions are still relatively rare, but it seems that to avoid undesirable political rows, many universities choose not to collaborate with their Israeli counterparts or offer scholarships to Israeli students. In many cases, Israelis looking to participate in student-exchange programs or pay for postgraduate studies in Europe, and especially the United Kingdom, are unable to find any opportunities. When it comes to funding, they tend to discover Israel is neither part of the Middle East nor of Europe. Israelis are usually not entitled to apply for the scholarships available to other foreign students.

While their Palestinian fellows enjoy the political and financial support of active pro-Palestinian university societies and generous scholarships designed specifically for them, the implicit message to Israelis is often: It doesn’t really matter what you say or think, because we simply don’t want to hear from you.” For example, British Member of Parliament George Galloway walked out a debate at Oxford University three months ago simply because he learned that his student opponent was an Israeli citizen. The fact that the student was about to explain the necessity of an agreement recognizing both Israel and a Palestinian state did not matter.

Many Israeli left wingers who hope to find outside Israel the support they lack at home are greatly disappointed. Here in London, I have had several unpleasant encounters with people, including academics, who were unwilling to talk to me simply because I am Israeli.

The dual rejection by the academic communities inside and outside Israel can be extremely frustrating, especially for those of us who see our academic work as part of a profound educational obligation and the academic environment as an opportunity for dialogue and exchange.

Israeli academia is known for its left-wing and pro-peace views. Considering their role in shaping critical political discourse in Israel and abroad, pro-Palestinian activists might be expected to see us as potential allies rather than as members of a sector that needs to be punished for the policy of our homeland – a policy we often protest ourselves.

More and more people in the U.K. seem to support the academic boycott of Israel as a means of obligating the state to change its policy toward the Palestinians. In a survey conducted by The Guardian, for instance, 62 percent of respondents said Hawking’s decision was justified.

But the change an academic boycott of Israel is likely to promote is not necessarily the one its supporters hope for. Even if a boycott pressures Israel to change its policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians, it will only increase antagonistic feelings among Israelis and destroy one of the few remaining channels for dialogue and exchange between the two nations. Then, even if Israel’s official policy were to change, it might be too late to change the hearts of the Israeli people and lay the foundation for mutual understanding with the Palestinians.

It is at times like this, when every conceivable scenario seems hopeless, that academics are most needed. Those of us who are committed to a bottom-up peace process must rise up and say: Stop, you are shooting the wrong targets! If we are silent, we will contribute to changing the political map of the Middle East but not in the way supporters of a boycott imagine.

The writer is an Israeli postgraduate student in the department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths University of London. Her research deals with different aspects of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

This piece, by Or Tshuva, is on Haaretz.com.

18 Responses to “Left-wing Israeli academics, shunned at home and abroad – Or Tshuva”

  1. Avi in Jerusalem Says:

    Or, I don’t think that you get it. You are playing a political game, but the rules are not universal, whatever you have been taught or want to believe.
    At home in Israel, people like my son’s ex-lecturer, Neve Gordon are indeed looked at by most people as one who has taken leave of his senses. Why is he complaining at being boycotted when it is a tactic which he actively supports for others? In political terms, the policies which he espouses have been singularly unsuccessful electorally. This is not to say that he should be prevented from espousing them, quite the contrary. Only in the rough and tumble of political debate can we change people’s minds and attitudes. However the notion that he has immunity from the policies that he preaches (I use the term in a religious sense – he is a believer) is misplaced. Also the fundamentalist nature of his argument does not do him much good either. As the English say, he is danger of being hoist by his own petard. But the argument is still one within the family or tribe and perhaps the more vicious for that. I think that that is one of the reasons that we have Israel, so that we can have these multi dimensional arguments in our own home.
    What you seem to be learning in the UK is that politics can be relative, especially depending on where you are geographically. I think that you may be encountering what our forebears encountered historically through the ages. For whatever reason, the Jew who tried to appease their enemy ended up in big trouble. Examples are legion: Conversos in Medieval Spain, assimilationists in 19th and 20th century Europe, Communists in 20th century Europe, especially in the USSR, antiZionists on college campus. They can never quite do enough to make the powers that be accept that they are good Jews, and that they are not like the other, bad Jews.
    Indeed, I am not sure that we Jews can combat anti-Semitism, we can expose it and hope that others, whose societies cause it to flourish destroy it before it destroys them, but the cause of Jew hatred has nothing to do with what we Jews do or are. It is the distorted figment of the imagination of the Jew hater.
    Both now and in former years, in the 1970s, when I studied in the UK, the boycott mob, which was then busy banning Jewish and Israel societies, was not interested in peace between Jews and Arabs. It wanted an end to the Jewish state of Israel and to hell with the Jews and the Palestinians too. However much columnists at Haaretz whine and moan about how they are being tarred with the wrong brush, that they are with the goodies, the penny has not dropped that whatever we do, will not be good enough. You know as well as I do that if there was a serious Arab response which accepted the Jewish right to self determination in the State Israel, borders could be drawn tomorrow and carried by a massive majority of the citizens of the State of Israel in a democratic election. No amount of outside pressure will change that process, only democratic arguments within Israel.
    I suppose in the end, I come back to the way that I was educated in the UK – empiricism and scepticism, working from what we could observe and disprove rather than the French notion of universal theoretical laws which if they did not fit human beings, rather than modifying the law, you bent the humans to fit the laws, and broke them in the process.
    BTW, I did not post this response to Haaretz because since they screwed Anat Kamm, who was a silly little girl, and abandoned the basic morality of a newspaper by exposing their sources, I will not have anything to do with that bunch of smug self satisfied hypocrites.

  2. Noga Says:

    Perhaps BDS can create a sub- committee to deal with all these Israeli academics who are persecuted by their own universities for sharing the premises that motivate BDSers. The threshold for receiving an exemption from the boycott should not be too high. It is enough that the applicant pronounce the BDS creed and make a sworn statement that he/she were denied tenure due to their political position. No further proof would be necessary. Persecuted people are not obliged to provide proof of their persecution.

  3. Jacob Arnon Says:

    David, being pro peace is one thing, supporting and calling for a boycott of Israeli academics is something else.
    Moreover, the whole controversy assumes that if only Israeli academics would speak out then peace will come to, Israel that the Palestinians would agree to cease agitating for the “right to return,” and all other issues that has stymied a peace deal till now. Moreover it also assumes that Palestinians organizations like Hamas would cease calling for Israel’s destruction. These assumptions make Israeli academics responsible for more than half century of belligerence by Palestinian Arabs, and other Arab countries. This is sheer nonsense since most academics have been for peace (as have many other Israelis) since before 1948.

    The idea that Professors have inordinate power in a is similar to the Russian communist notions that artists and scholars have the power to create and recreate reality. This was the excuse used to persecute intellectuals in that country. The same kind of persecutions is now underway by international organizations against scholars and intellectuals in the Jewish State.

    I am shocked that some Israeli academics cooperate with the persecution of their intellectual comrades and am not surprised that some of them are ostracized. The whole controversy is reminiscent of the attempt by Christians to eradicate Judaism over the centuries because Judaism was a false religion and Jews were being stiff necked and obstinate for holding on to their traditional culture. At what point will English and Irish universities start to burn Hebrew books? I doubt they will be satisfied with merely boycotting Israeli scholars. Boycotts are merely a first step to more radical ostracism. I hope Israeli academics will not give in to blackmail.

    The desire by British and some other European institutions of higher learning to eliminate Israeli scholarship will if instituted compromise their own academic work. The boycott assumes that Israel benefits more from contact with European scholars than do the Europeans. This is a false assumption as even a cursory inquiry into Hawking’s work will notice that he benefited from the work done by Israeli scientists. For example:

    “Beginning in 1973, Hawking moved into the study of quantum gravity and quantum mechanics.[88][87] His work in this area was spurred by a visit to Moscow and discussions with Yakov Borisovich Zel’dovich and Alexander Starobinsky, whose work showed that according to the uncertainty principle rotating black holes emit particles.[89] To Hawking’s annoyance, his much-checked calculations produced findings that contradicted his second law, which claimed black holes could never get smaller,[90] and supported Bekenstein’s reasoning about their entropy.”

    Bekenstein is a well-regarded Israeli scientists. There many more such examples. My view is that just as Soviet academic life deteriorated in part because of their discrimination of “cosmopolitan” and “Zionists” so too will European intellectual life suffer if they succeed in instituting a boycott of Israeli and Jewish academics.

    • Peter J Says:

      Two questions for David Hirsch:

      1. What about the right wing academics? Should they be boycotted?

      2. If Israeli academia is known for its left-wing and pro-peace views, why has this no impact in the society in general? Is Israeli acedemia only present in an ivory tower? Given the often repeated claim (hasbara) that Israel is at the forefront in almost every branch of science, why do no one care about what the scientists think?

      My personal experience is that there are as many right wingers in academia as there are left wingers.

      • Noga Says:

        Good Jews and bad Jews. Peter is offering an amusing twist to Orwell’s thought crime. What next? A daily ritual of two-minutes of hate against academics who do not believe Israel should be liquidated?

      • Jacob Arnon Says:

        Peter: Israeli academics have as much influence as academics in most modern countries no more and no less. It is also a mistake to refer to academics that resist blackmail (which is what the proposed boycott is) as right wing.

        Tell me Peter, do people in the UK care what academics think? Do they vote the way academics tell them to vote? Why should that be different in Israel? The country is a complex modern society and people believe and vote according to their experience in life and not the way the way one segment of society tells them to vote.

        Any society that votes according to the dictates of Professors is not a democracy. Besides, why is it only up to Israeli or Jewish academics to work for a peace process? What about Arab and more specifically Palestinian Arab academics? Do they work for a peace process? Do they council compromise on questions of war and peace?
        It is hypocritical and bigoted to assume that only one side of a conflict has the burden for peace. This notion assumes that Jews and only Jews are responsible for the conflict and if only they would cease defending themselves there would be no conflict.

        • Peter J Says:

          Jacob Arnon,

          I expressed myself wrong.

          Of course Israel is a complex society and so forth, but people in academia (everywhere) do have some influence. Specially in the long run, and this conflict has been going on, as you know. I mean that some of what political scientists, historians, sociologists should have filtered in, at least to the establishment, if not to the general public. But instead we have seen the opposite: the Israeli society, with its different elites, has taken a sharp turn right the last 10 years or so. Why is that, since it’s so clearly against what would be needed for a durable peace?

        • NIMN Says:

          ‘I mean that some of what political scientists, historians, sociologists should have filtered in, at least to the establishment, if not to the general public. ‘

          Yes, thank God for the UCU in the UK as well as historians, sociologists, etc. Because of them Britain has not has suffered a sharp turn right over the last 10 years. UKIP must be trembling in their shoes at the thought of these wonderful academics holding the line. It’s not even like the Universities and academics laid down before the Thatcher reforms and took them as their own.

          I also recall the strikes that were carried out across the whole of England, Wales and Scotland when the British troops were in Ireland. I remember to this day, the way that all – or, at least, a vast majority of academics across the British Isles marched out work during the period of internment and called for a boycott of their own institutions. Truly their greatest hour – up to the moment that is that they refused to have anything to do with the British state as soon as they started occupying Iraq.
          If only the Israeli academics were half as principled as the British ones are!
          (Mind you, they are doing their bit, in calling for the boycott of someone else’s country – how admirable of them).

          Thank God that in the UK Plato was right – Philosopher-Kings rule!!

        • NIMN Says:

          In the UK British academics have to report to the state the attendance of non-EU students. They act as an arm of the State.
          You may have read the way they refused to do so? No?, nor I??

          Israeli universities (and so Israeli academics) work with Palestinian students and colleagues (you do know that a leading member of the Boycott Movement is a Palestinian at UTA.

          But, fuck it, boycott the universities and the academics anyway. It makes us feel so good.

        • Jacob Arnon Says:

          Peter J. addressed a comment to me. I replied yesterday yet I don’t see my reply. What happened to my reply?

    • Lynne T Says:

      David Hirsh did not write this opinion. Or Tshuva did. David merely published it here without comment.

  4. Noga Says:

    “… the Israeli society, with its different elites, has taken a sharp turn right the last 10 years or so. Why is that, ”

    1.The rejection by Arafat of the two-state proposal by and Clinton, then the rejection of Olmert’s even better proposal to Abbas
    2. The second intifada, 1,137 Israelis killed in Arab terrorist attacks from September 2000 – 2005 were and 8,341 injured many of them with life altering handicapping.
    3. The relentless, monotonous, and consistent Palestinian anti-Israel & anti-Jewish propaganda, in every branch of the public sphere: schools, media, mosques.

    If you want to know, genuinely, why Israelis have turned away from the quest for peace, you need look no further than BDS. What are its aims and goals? These aims and goals reflect no less than the wishes of the Palestinian people. Peace, convivencia, normalization, delineation of legal borders, are not their suit.
    Here are some choice examples of these wishes from an American-Arab prof who is in perfect sync with Palestinian wishes:

    “… once Palestine is liberated, I don’t think that Hebrew poet living under a Palestinian flag (and using the renamed George Habash International Airport) should be harassed unless they harm the security of the anti-Zionist state.”
    ” But your delusions are good for us: you won’t know what will hit you in the future in response to all the war crimes that you have committed against our people. ”

    “And once the Palestinian refugees are returned to their homes all over Palestine, I will make sure that you get decent rents in the formerly Palestinian refugee camps because we may be a bit short of space for the occupiers then. ”

    And then there is this:

    ” (Nothing incenses me or provokes me like watching scenes of “tourist” promotion for the enemy state of Israel: I scream in my inside. The stones are not yours. The flowers are not yours. The beaches are not yours. The clouds are not yours. The blueness of the sky is not yours. All will return to their owners. Then, everything will be more beautiful and more splendid.)”

    “I was looking forward to the end of the world as it would have permitted me–even for a second–to witness the end of the Zionist entity over Palestine.”

    And this:

    ” But no, never will we recognize the Zionist State of Israel! We must go back to the 1968 PLO charter, not the one engineered by Bill Clinton in Ramallah. We Arabs, Palestinians, cannot be equivocal when it comes to Israel. The Arab world will never prosper until the Zionist regime is removed!”

    He added: “Yes, I am gloating now–Israel sees their ordered world now collapsing before their very eyes. We celebrate the demise of Israel, yes, Israel, your days are truly numbered!”

    AbuKhalil got a thunderous, standing five-minute ovation.

    (From a report in the April 2011 issue of The Independent Monitor newspaper: http://www.theindependentmonitor.com/?s=AbuKhalil&x=30&y=6&=Go)”

    Why doesn’t Peter go to those blogs that purport to support Palestinians and ask them this question: Why is that, that Palestinians keep aspiring to destroy Israel?

  5. Peter J Says:


    I think You and I have to little common ground for discussion. I don’t accept any of your premises, not even close.

    1. Arafat didn’t “reject peace” because he didn’t accept one particular offer. In my opinion Israelis could have continued negotiating with (probably) the last leader that had a clear mandate to speak for all Palestinians. Instead, they besieged him in a bunker in Ramallah, where he spent his last years.

    2. Intafada? What happened was that Arial Sharon came to power and smashed the whole Palestinian society in what the noted israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling (speaking of academic) called a politicide (Kimmerling: Politicide. Ariel Sharon’s War Against the Palestinians, Verso 2003) – the almost complete destruction of the civil society in the West Bank. Israeli military blew up most public offices, and, incredibly, allmost every single personal computer. The administration collapsed, not only metaphorically, but physically. I remember Sharons typical hebrew accent when he said “-We arrre uprrrooting the infrastrrructure of terrrorrr”, bombing municipal buildings with F-16:s.

    3. That is simply not true. Only in the minds PalWatch, Memri and other settler-oriented agenda-driven organizations, that has some merit. Sure there are hatred and bigotry on all sides, but that’s a natural residual of the fact that the conflict i still there. Stop the blame game. And if you talk to Palestinians today, specially younger people, they are as fed up with the corruption of Fatah and Hamas as they are with the occupation. Not far from now, I predict, the turning point will come, and Palestinians on the West Bank, will give up their claim for statehood, and demand equal rights within a Greater Israel, from the river to the sea. When that day comes, Noga, zionist of your brand will have real problems.

    • Jacob Arnon Says:

      Peter: “Arafat didn’t “reject peace” because he didn’t accept one particular offer. In my opinion Israelis could have continued negotiating with (probably) the last leader that had a clear mandate to speak for all Palestinians. Instead, they besieged him in a bunker in Ramallah, where he spent his last years.”

      Peter, this forum isn’t about the history of the Arab Israeli conflict. It’s about why people like you favor boycotting Israel and no other country whose human rights record is far worse than that of Israel.
      Your historical vignette is also far-fetched much had happened between the time that Arafat rejected the peace offers at Camp David and his last years in Ramallah. You left out the suicide bombers that killed Israeli civilians and which turned the public against Ehud Barak and led to a Likud victory.

      About Camp David, President Clinton, or Dennis Ross the American chief negotiator would disagree with you. Read also Saul Singer,”Camp David, Real and Invented,“ Middle East Quarterly, (Spring 2002).

      We are not going to agree on this issue. But is disagreement a reason to boycott one side and one side only of a conflict?

      You believe that the conflict will end only when a single (and Arab) State is established. (Hamas and the Muslim brotherhood as well as many Palestinians in Fatah) will not agree to a single State with Jews (their enemy) having equal rights to that of Muslims.

      In any case, I assume that this is your wish. But, for that to occur , Peter, Israeli Jews will have to agree to it. I don’t see that happening any time soon. It especially won’t happen through boycotts of the Jewish State.

      Ironically, while you preach single State solutions, many Arab single states are threatened with disintegration States such as Syria and Iraq.

      • Noga Says:

        Hussein Ibish, no lover of Israel, dismissed the idea of the one-state solution. He seems to grasp the extent of the absurd contradiction between the end and the means:

        “The fundamental argument that the one-staters seem to be making, which is that we can’t possibly get Israel to end the occupation and relinquish their control of the 22 percent of Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza) but we will inevitably succeed in getting them to relinquish one hundred percent of the territory under their control. This is a problem of logic. The second thing is that once you’ve realized this, obviously what you’ve done is set yourself the task of convincing Jewish Israelis to voluntarily do this. The idea of coercing the Israelis into this through military force is absurd, and it could only really be done through voluntary persuasion. What the one-staters argue, actually, is that they don’t have to do that. What they’re going to do, they say, is bring the Israelis to their knees.”


    • Noga Says:

      Peter: I form my opinions based on historical records from sources that are verifiable and credible. How you form your opinions is anybody’s guess.

      – Was it really Sharon’s visit that ignited the intifada? Or was it just the excuse?

      I remember Arafat’s repeated insistence that he had absolutely no interest in fomenting violence but that “the people” spontaneously combusted after Camp David II (Interesting, that premise: As soon as a peace proposal is made, it triggers violence. What are Israelis to learn from this? Turn the other cheek?)

      Well, years later the full truth came to light, and from an unimpeachable source:
      “Yasser Arafat’s widow, Suha, admitted that the late Palestinian leader planned the second intifada, in an interview with Dubai TV earlier this month, according to a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

      “Immediately after the failure of the Camp David [negotiations], I met him in Paris upon his return…. Camp David had failed, and he said to me, ‘You should remain in Paris.’ I asked him why, and he said, ‘Because I am going to start an intifada. They want me to betray the Palestinian cause. They want me to give up on our principles, and I will not do so,”


      – Any genuine peace loving activist out there ought to realize by now that all it needs for Palestinian plight to end is a will to peace, which will translate into a very simple principle: All we Palestinians want is to be Palestinians. We will no longer kill, seek to kill, educate to kill or want to kill any Israeli Jew. Once that paradigm shift takes place, every obstacle that causes Palestinian suffering will fall away like a dry scab from a healed wound.

      Surely this is not such an impossible thing to do?

      – If terrorist activity, like attacking schoolbuses and coffee shops and bus stops, is encouraged, tolerated, planned or executed by the Palestinians in charge then every building that serves them as a meeting place is a legitimate target for bombing. It is absolutely within international law to remove infrastructure that serves the enemy’s hostile and murderous purposes.

      – BTW, If I were to make fun of an Arab leader’s accent, (for example the difficulty to pronounce the “p” correctly) you would call me a racist in no time. Funny, AbuKhalil whose musings I was quoting from in my previous comment, was making fun of Peres’ Hebrew-accented English, too.


      Sympathetic to his views, are you?

  6. Jacob Arnon Says:

    Peter J Says:

    “Jacob Arnon, I expressed myself wrong.”

    I’ll try replying to Peter again.

    Peter, the problem wasn’t the expressive form of your comment, it was the content.

    You assume without proving that Israel is politically different. However you don’t say different from what.

    You argue that academics in other counties have an impact on the government, but you don’t state where.

    To me your assumptions about Israel don’t stand up to scrutiny. Academics in Israel have the same amount of impact on their government as anywhere else which isn’t much.

    If this is your excuse for boycotting Israel then your than your excuse is pretty thin and it’s arbitrary. You would have more of a motive if you said that professors in Israel support circumcision and your against circumcision. It’s that ridiculous.

    I would guess that Israeli professors are more supportive of the peace process than professors in the PA or Jordan or Egypt. Did you consider boycotting those countries because if you did I missed it..

    • Lynne T Says:

      I still remember a sound bite on CBC Radio a month or two before Operation Cast Lead from a Palestinian professor of political science teaching in Gaza, who declared (without apparent irony) that, “Is-rael will never accept a neighbouring country that does not recognize Is-rael’s right to exist.”

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