Killing Freedom of Thought in Israel


By Farish A. Noor



There are times when the call of patriotism has to be superseded by the even

greater call of universal humanism. One has to have the courage and will to

stand up for what is right, even if that means risking the wrath of the

misguided majority.


That is precisely the risk that is being taken today by a number of democrats

and liberals in Israel, a country that has been taken hostage by the demagogues

and war-mongers of the extreme right. While the hawks of war continue to raise

the political temperature in the country, a small but vocal minority of

dissenters have spoken up time and again to remind the leaders of Israel of

their obligation to respect international law and the universal spirit of human

rights. They have pointed out the blatant abuses of human rights in the occupied

territories, as well as Israel’s own deplorable record in dealing with the Arabs

within and without the country. For their efforts, they have been rewarded with

alienation, persecution and even threats against their lives and liberty.


The predicament that is being faced today by Professor Ilan Pappe, academic at

the University of Haifa, sums up the sad lot of liberal academics all over. Over

the years Professor Pappe has been a consistent and vocal critic of his own

government and one of the few voices of reason in the country. He has exposed

the injustices being meted out on the Palestinians in the occupied territories,

condemned the Israeli government for its abuse of human rights and even

supported the international campaign for the boycott of Israeli academia.


In the past Professor Pappe has also criticised his university for the apparent

lack of transparency and fair play within its walls. When one of the

university’s students stumbled upon historical data related to the Tantura

massacre of 1948 and was subsequently disqualified, it was Professor Pappe who

came to the student’s rescue. He argued that for academic work to be taken

seriously it had to be done in the most open and objective manner. The

discoveries about Israel’s own bloody and violent past should not be swept under

the carpet, and for academics to collaborate with the establishment would be an

act of betrayal against the very principles of scholarship itself.


For his part in defending the student concerned, Professor Pappe was branded a

‘traitor’ and a ‘threat’ to the status quo. Now Professor Pappe himself has come

under attack, and the university authorities have decided to put him on trial.


It is no coincidence that Professor Pappe is being attacked at this point in

time. As he himself has pointed out: ”The reason the university waited so long

is that now the time is ripe in Israel for any act of silencing academic

freedom.” The ultimate objective of the whole exercise is plain for all to see:

the goal is to expel Professor Pappe himself in order to eliminate voices of

dissent within the ivory towers of the country.


The beleaguered professor is under no delusions whatsoever about the motives

behind the attack on him and what the final outcome will be: “Judging by past

procedures this is not a request, but already a verdict, given the position of

the person in question in the university and the way things had been done in the

past. The ostensible procedure of a 'fair trial' does not exist and hence I do

not even intend to participate in a McCarthyist charade.”


The hounding of Professor Pappe comes at a time when academic and intellectual

freedom in Israel has plummeted to an all-time low. As with the case of academic

life in the rest of the Western world, the growth of the pro-Zionist lobby has

meant that those who point to the internal contradictions and faults of Israel

are themselves denounced as ‘anti-Semites’ and apologists for Arab ‘terrorism’.

But as Professor Pappe has shown, Israel has also had its fair share of

extremists and war-mongers, and the country is far from innocent of the charge

of aggression against its neighbours.


The trials and tribulations of Professor Pappe should also remind us of one

crucial thing: that not every Israeli is a Zionist and not every citizen of

Israel supports the horrendous policies of the Israeli state itself. By speaking

out the way they do, they remind us (and their fellow citizens) of the fact that

Israel remains a divided and plural society, with many other minority groupings

and constituencies within its borders. (Israel is still the home of thousands of

Arabs, who feel that they no longer belong there and whose historical presence

is being erased by the day.)


It is here that the opportunity arises for us to form instrumental coalitions

with like-minded individuals and groups who wish to resist and challenge the

growing dominance of the religious extremists and political hardliners in

Israel. For as Professor Pappe himself has argued, his case is not a personal

matter but a concern for the country as a whole. The hounding of Ilan Pappe

strikes at the very core of Israeli identity itself. What is at stake here is

not simply the career of one man, but the very soul of Israel as a whole.

Hanging in the balance is the future of Israel and its relations with the Other

within and without.


Though the present atmosphere in Israel has made his work even more difficult,

if not dangerous, Professor Pappe has tried to show that the love of truth and

fairness has to come before shallow patriotism and sabre-rattling. For those of

us who are concerned about the rapidly deteriorating state of affairs between

Israel and Palestine and the rest of the Arab world, supporting the struggle of

individuals like Ilan Pappe would be a significant step towards breaking down

the communitarian boundaries that have made impossible any compromise or

peaceful settlement between the warring nations. It would also expose the

growing authoritarianism and dictatorship of the majority in Israel, which may

one day plunge that country – and all its neighbours – into a regional conflict

which can only lead to more bloodshed and suffering on all sides.


Standing by those who have shown the courage to challenge the hate-mongers and

extremists in Israel would therefore be a significant step towards exposing “the

already dismal picture and false pretense of Israel being the 'only democracy in

the Middle East.” For having the temerity to do so, Professor Ilan Pappe is

paying a heavy price indeed.