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There are times when the call of patriotism has to be superseded by the even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