Pro-Palestinian Israeli academics say they face witch hunt

Professor Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University said Israel’s intelligence agencies monitor professors at university campuses.
Saturday 27/07/2019
A ring-wing protester and supporter of Im Tirtzu demonstrates at an event held by Israeli left-wing artists and academics in Tel Aviv. (Reuters)
Intimidation. A ring-wing protester and supporter of Im Tirtzu demonstrates at an event held by Israeli left-wing artists and academics in Tel Aviv. (Reuters)

LONDON - Pro-Palestinian Israeli academics said they are victims of a witch hunt on university campuses across Israel by right-wing groups labelling professors and researchers as enemies of the state.

The academics point to a website called “Know your professor” that posts names of academics who have expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, encouraged Israelis to evade military service or accused soldiers of war crimes as well as harming the reputation of the Israeli government overseas.

The website is run by the right-wing, non-profit organisation Im Tirtzu, whose mission statement says it aims to play a “key role in the development of the next generation of committed and aware Zionist leaders of Israel. These future leaders are to be found largely on Israel’s campuses and not surprisingly our presence is greatest there.”

Critics of the list of names say it paints all academics with the same brush.

“Anyone who had ever signed a petition to support soldiers who refused to serve in the occupied territories was considered to be BDS. That was their criteria in creating this list,” Professor Amiram Goldblum of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem said by telephone.

“I was one of the first targets of Im Tirtzu. The students started taking photos and videos of my lectures. They tried to block my course. Anyone who deals with human rights [is] subjected to the worst kind of smear campaign,” said Goldblum. “The Israeli intelligence agencies are naming and shaming academics to counter their support to Israeli oppression in [the Palestinian territories].”

Professor Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University said Israel’s intelligence agencies monitor professors at university campuses.

“They have Google alerts on certain professors about what they write and they follow their online activity in the English and Hebrew press,” he said. “The strategy has been to ask students to spy on their professors in the classroom.

“Basically, they will have students sitting in your class recording and even filming lectures without you noticing. From these recordings, they will try and find if you are discussing anything critical of Israel’s abusive policy. Then they will use that against you.”

Goldblum accused the campaign of being supported by the government. “The Netanyahu government uses Im Tirtzu as a watchdog by which they try to locate members of the academia that do not support the government policy,” he said.

Left-wing Israelis say they are among the prime targets of that campaign.

“It is a violent fascist campaign against anyone that does not adhere to their way of thinking. They are incorrectly informing students that universities are being taken over by leftist academics,” said Ofer Cassif, a representative of leftist Hadash party in the Knesset.

Im Tirtzu representatives said their campaign is two-fold.

“Im Tirtzu’s activities are based on a dual-pronged approach derived from Psalms 34 — ‘Depart from evil and do good,’” Eytan Meir, director of External Relations at Im Tirtzu, said in a telephone interview.

“On the one hand, we ‘depart from evil’ by exposing and combating the anti-Zionist and post-Zionist phenomena in Israel and, on the other hand, we ‘do good’ by educating students and the broader public to reaffirm and restore their belief in the justice of the Zionist cause.”

Gordon said he’s been a target of the campaign. “I have been subjected to their attacks many times. They have gone to Knesset members and people of power with whom they are in touch, incorrectly quoted things and requested my resignation. Donors who fund the university have also been approached to withdraw funding to the university.”

Haaretz reported that the Council of University Presidents in Israel described the activities of Im Tirtzu as “a witch hunt run by extremist political organisations serving cynical political interests.”

Meir disagreed. “It is unfortunate that the Council of University Presidents opted to bad mouth a website aimed at helping students, rather than addressing the legitimate concerns of thousands of students about radical anti-Israel professors who politicise their classes,” he said via telephone.

Meir said Israeli students are being subjected to unfair treatment by left-wing academics.

“Just two months ago, a poll conducted in Hebrew University found that students who identified with the right were significantly more concerned about expressing their views in class; 51.9% of the right-leaning students said they were careful about expressing their views to the professor out of fear for their grade,” said Meir.

Human rights organisations said labelling academics as “anti-state” is a tool to suppress freedom of expression.

“The publishing of the names of the professors in this manner is part of the overall trajectory for any opposition voices in Israel who are criticising Israeli government position. Private actors including far-right organisations and

Im Tirtzu have been known to intimidate human rights defenders who fight against the climate of fear. This in order to deter them from criticising Israel’s position,” said Anan AbuShanab of Amnesty International.

Gordon said the campaign is pushing Israeli academics to self-censorship. “This is a chilling message to freedom of speech. It’s telling those who are in the system ‘we will make you stifle on what you say.’ More chilling to the faculty members who are not in the tenure system, who are beginning their careers in academia, we are monitoring you,” he said.

Gordon added that the campaign is harming the development of critical thinking among university students.

“The students are only understanding their role in the university rather than focus on learning and think critically,” he said. “In effect, they consider themselves spies on a national mission to monitor their professors.”