"At Basel, I founded the Jewish State... and certainly in 50 years, everyone will know it,” concluded Theodore Herzl after the first Zionist Congress in 1897. Herzl’s prophetic boast wasn’t based on persuading his buddies in a bar that a modern state for the Jews would be a good thing. Rather, in the shadow of one of the world’s most famous zoos, Herzl assembled approximately 200 Jewish men and women of many stripes from 17 countries across Europe.
Herzl convened six Zionist Congresses between 1897 and 1902, in which year he published Altneuland, a utopian novel about the Jewish state. The novel concludes with Herzl’s famous rallying cry: "If you wish it, it is no legend."
Today, over a century later, Israel is a thriving modern miracle forged from Herzl’s dream into a tangible, palpable reality. The diverse group of Jews who made their way to its shores from more than 70 countries around the world built a nation that would make Uncle Teddy very proud. However, as he himself would likely predict, not all of its inhabitants get along all the time. One high profile example that has been capturing a lot of attention recently involves Im Tirtzu, an organization that takes its name from that rallying cry of Herzl’s, mired in controversy with a university named after the chief architect, conductor and implementer of Herzl’s vision, David Ben-Gurion.
Turning pens into swords
The conflict was precipitated by a July 18th letter from Im Tirtzu’s chairman, Ronen Shoval, to Ben Gurion University’s president, Professor Rivka Carmi. The letter states that Im Tirtzu will ask donors in Israel and abroad to put their contributions in escrow until "the anti-Zionist tilt in the politics and government department has been corrected." It specifically names Neve Gordon, chairman of the offensive department, and notes that he and five colleagues signed petitions agitating for boycotts of Israel. Im Tirtzu offered President Carmi one month to detail the "practical steps" she intends to take to rectify the rampant anti-Zionism perpetrated by Gordon et al.
I believe that the Gordon Gang’s calls for international academic, cultural and economic boycotts of Israel disgrace the university and constitute a mischievous abuse of the hallowed concept of academic tenure. They bite the hand that feeds them, then beat a cowardly retreat behind the iron curtain of permanent status protection. I invite readers of this column to suggest a creative, elegant way to encourage his entourage to find another platform from which to preach their repugnant views.
Furthermore, while I find Im Tirtzu’s bullying approach offensive, I believe that accusing them of McCarthyism, as a chorus of academics and politicians have done, displays a lamentable callousness towards a uniquely painful chapter in American history. Im Tirtzu did not (nor does it have any power to) threaten criminal prosecution or indictment of the university or any of its principals. Rather, it warned of private sanctions against an entity that failed a slanted test based on subjective barometers of acceptable standards of Zionism.
Those who accused Im Tirtzu of Facism should be especially ashamed of themselves. This grotesque misuse of a term that we Jews should be particularly vigilant not to diminish, debases what could otherwise be a legitimate discourse on the scope of academic freedom.
However, I do accuse Im Tirtzu of severe myopia. Their menacing admonitions betray a blatant, pathetic misunderstanding of what Israeli universities exemplify. BGU, along with its sister universities across Israel, is blessed with leading research facilities that contribute enormously to the country and the rest of the world. From a Zionist perspective, these institutions enable advocates for Israel to share the country’s incredible achievements. The world’s computers, communications devices, medical cabinets, agricultural fields and bookshelves are replete with intellectual property produced in Israel. Israel generates more scientific papers per capita than any other nation, and Israeli academics have won five Nobel Prizes in science in the past decade alone.
Aside from the half dozen academics branded as anti-Zionists in Im Tirtzu’s letter, BGU has over 1,600 faculty educating approximately 18,000 students. The university is a world leader in medicine, arid zone research, water treatment, and solar energy. Its recent conference on desertification attracted more than 350 participants from over 40 countries, many of which are developing nations with poor or hostile relations with Israel. David Ben-Gurion’s archives, comprising 75,000 documents, are housed and studied at the university’s Sde Boker campus. The Eilat campus has the country’s leading schools for oceanography and hotel management.
Beware what you wish for
Freedom of speech should be extended to organizations like Im Tirtzu and they can choose to discourage voluntary support for institutions they oppose. But they should be careful what they wish for. If you wish ill upon Israel’s universities and seek to deprive them of financial support for their first-rate research, they may wind up as mere purveyors of ideology. Taken to the extreme, Im Tirtzu’s approach could lead us to the model found in many of Israel’s neighboring countries, where universities inexorably devolve into state-controlled laboratories of hate-mongering, saber-rattling, and demonstrations against exogenous demons.
We need to learn important lessons from Herzl and Ben-Gurion, men with strong personal opinions who welcomed other perspectives in the spirit of open, democratic debate. Herzl purposely recruited Jews with many points of view. They grappled with contentious issues such as the geographic imperative that Israel be the exclusive home for the nascent Jewish state. Ben-Gurion presided over a team that was often similarly divided but planted the seeds for a flourishing democracy.
I believe that Ben-Gurion University would be an excellent venue to host a symposium on the boundaries of academic expression. Attendees could propose reasonable limits demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. Certainly, organizations like Im Tirtzu should be invited to share their thoughts. I suspect they will want to propose curricular “Red Lines” that cannot be crossed. However, if they really purport to act in the name of Zionism, I recommend that they be careful. Drawing Red Lines could smudge, even blot out, the essential values, achievement and boundless potential of Blue and White.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on August 26, 2010
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