Sunday, October 04, 2009

The All-Stars

The Israeli government is upset at a Norwegian public academic institution for sponsoring a lecture series on Israel that only invites its most strident critics to the stage (including several boycott advocates).
The seminar, whose first session took place last month, includes lectures by Ilan Pappe, who accuses Israel of perpetrating an "ethnic cleansing of Palestine" and by Stephen Walt, the coauthor of a controversial study on the effect of the Israel-lobby on U.S. policy. It has been described by prominent scholars as anti-Semitic.

Other speakers invited by NTNU Dean Torbjorn Digernes include Moshe Zuckermann, who in a January interview for Deutschlandradio - a widely-heard German program - said that operation Cast Lead cost hundreds of thousands of Gazan lives.

The members of the seminar's organizing committee - Morten Levin, Ann Rudinow Saetnan and Rune Skarstein - have all signed a call for an academic boycott of Israel. They also brought a few Norwegian speakers, famous for their critical view of Israel.

"There's no one on the panel with a neutral view of Israel, let alone anyone to advocate its position," a source from the Foreign Ministry said. "Usually we do not get involved with academic forums of this sort because it's a freedom-of-expression issue, but this all-star team of Israel-haters crosses a line," the diplomat added.

"The overwhelming majority [of Israeli academics] oppose Pappe and Zuckerman and are rarely if ever found in seminars in Norway," Ivri wrote.

Morten Levin from NTNU - a state-funded institution - replied to Haaretz's query on the allegations by saying the objective of the lectures is to "communicate to a broad audience a deeper research-based understanding" of the situation.

"This requires a critical and careful scrutiny based on standard scientific methods," he added. "Neither the Israeli state nor the Palestinian authority or Hamas will be defended. None of the lecturers will question the right of the Israeli state to exist."

Responding to speculations by pro-Israeli scholars that the seminars will be a prelude to a call on NTNU to boycott Israel, Levin said: "The organizing committee of the lecture series has no formal connection whatsoever to the organization working for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions."

The university's dean - who has called the seminar "praiseworthy" - did not reply to Haaretz's request to interview him.

Professor Walt, of course, has a blog, so I'd be fascinated to hear his thoughts on why he agreed to participate in this lecture series.

The other part of this, of course, is the academic freedom element. I tend towards a pretty strong stance in favor of academic freedom, extending not just to the ability to tackle controversial subjects, but perhaps even to tackle them in a completely biased and one-sided manner (though that is a closer call). If pressed, I would say that the organizers of this lecture series should not be obligated as a matter of law to give Israel a fair hearing, to tell both sides of the story, to give a forum to mainstream Jewish and Israeli voices (of which Prof. Pappe is certainly not). Of course, I'm immediately skeptical of the pure academic credentials of someone who alleges Cast Lead killed hundreds of thousands -- one hundred times higher than any credible estimate -- and academic misconduct, particularly in the pursuit of prejudice, should not be tolerated. But in general, I don't think the state should intervene just because even a public academic institution is sponsoring a biased presentation that is wrongful and hurtful to a vulnerable class of people, promulgating hate and prejudice, even (indirectly) threatening lives.

What we can do, and indeed are obligated to do, is call out the seminar for it is: prejudiced. We absolutely should not acquiesce to their framing that this is a dispassionate, "scientific" inquiry -- which implicitly indicates the old frame that the broad Jewish community lies outside universalist rationality, a parochial holdover from pre-scientific times that can and ought to be ignored in search of the bigger truth. Likewise, when someone partakes in a series such as this, they are signaling their disdain for the Jewish and Israeli community. They are indicating that they don't respect as humans or equals. They are, in a phrase I will defend, behaving in an anti-Semitic manner. And it is no violation of academic freedom to challenge them on that grounds.

People have the right to sponsor anti-Semitic events. We have the right to challenge them and call out their anti-Semitism, and that of the participants.

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