Academic Freedom and Patriotism

14 04 2009



The question about Israel’s academic freedom is one that would undoubtedly give you diverging answers, depending on whom you ask. The left will tell you that academia is not left enough, and the right will tell you it isn’t right enough.

An article captured my attention on the Jerusalem Post, published last week, on April 6th. It features an interview with Dana Barnett, the founder of Israel Academia Monitor (IAM) that tracks Israel’s professors for anti-Israel speech and teachings.

For those of you who know Campus Watch in the U.S., the IAM is its Israeli counterpart. It puts out documents and speeches that Israeli academics have published/lectured, most of which are major criticisms of Israel. Barnett’s mission is to determine the “anti-Zionists” and more so, those who are “anti-Israel.” The article and the mentality is what’s most discomforting.


Professors Criticizing Israel

Barnett focuses on those professors who call Israel an apartheid force, other professors who called against Israel’s war on Gaza, others who support the Palestinian cause and those professors who are against the “security wall,” because she believes that all those can constitute acts of treason. Lumping all of these together is really problematic.

She says that not all professors who express criticism towards Israel or sympathy with the Palestinians are mentioned. But shouldn’t that be the natural case in a democratic country anyway? She says that she searches for words like “occupation” and “apartheid” in these documents to determine who might be speaking against the Jewish State, although the word “occupation” alone does not make an anti-Israel sentiment. I ask then: why look for it?


About the Palestinians

In one line of the interview, Barnett characterizes the Palestinians as “enemies.” She says, “I realized that they are people – with rights, of course – but not a people. They have no common denominator, other than wanting to see Israel destroyed. And that’s not sufficient for peoplehoold.” Is that making your stomach turn yet?

The statement is contradictory. She acknowledges that the Palestinians are people, but then not really people, with rights, but then their rights should technically be taken away because all of them are bent on destroying Israel.

Do any of us remember Kahane? Can we say that electing Avigdor Lieberman also says something about Israel’s peace intentions with the Palestinians and its treatment of Arab-Israelis? Can we generalize, please?


The Problematic Mentality

Coming from the Middle East, this line of thinking is strikingly similar to that in the Arab and Muslim world. In many Arab countries, speaking against the government and its actions would bring you a lot of trouble. “Treason” and “traitors” are but few examples of name-calling; words that Barnett herself uses.

Barnett says that their goal is to exert pressure on “emotional treason.” I got nervous when I read those words. She does not provide us with a definition of “emotional treason.” It reminds me of the 1950s McCarthyism era in the U.S. when anyone who spoke against the country during the cold war was charged with un-patriotism and in many cases, treason.

“Emotional treason” reminds me of the phrase “fear-mongering.”


My Point

Students should be exposed to all kinds of principles and ideas at universities. It should be up to them to choose what to think. To say that these professors, as small in number as they are now, can change a generations’ mentality is simply giving them too much power and credit. To say that students are mere followers and information-receivers is simply undermining our intelligence and ability to figure it out on our own. I have had professors on the far right and those on the far left. I choose what to think.

The point with academic freedom is freedom itself. You begin to curb that, then you begin to curb an important part of the society. You begin to curb that, then you begin to hurt what Israel does far better than its neighbors.  

I was left with a couple of questions: why doesn’t this organization, in the name of academic freedom, also mention those professors who preach against the Palestinians in general? Why not mention those who speak about the Palestinians, maybe even Arabs and Muslims, as people who do not have the right to exist, who deserve to be expelled, who are animals, plain enemies? Please don’t tell me those professors don’t exist. 


Marking Passover

8 04 2009
Passover 2009 - Jerusalem Post, AP

Jerusalem Passover, 2009 - Jerusalem Post, AP

Today is an important day for many Jews around the world. It is Passover, a seven-day celebration marking the Jews’ exodus from Egypt and their liberation from slavery. It is a day of appreciation, humanity and, of course, food!

This photo captured my attention on the Jerusalem Post. If you click on the link titled “Blessing of the Sun” right below this photo on the actual website, you will see many more beautiful pictures taken today. The article also reports the different events and celebrations that are taking place these next couple of days among the Jewish community in Israel and around the world.

Feminine Police

8 04 2009


Palestinian policewomen -, Associated Press

Palestinian policewomen -, Associated Press


A few days ago, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, published an article from the Associated Press marking the first graduating class of women from the two-year-old Palestinian military academy.

All 16 of them, young, some wearing the Muslim headscarf, the hijab, marched alongside 148 men and are now an integral part (hopefully) of the Palestinian police.

The AP reported that these women go through the same training as men. One of them, Rwaida Rabaya, had been in an Israeli prison for two years for her affiliation with a militant group. This move, she said, was the “peaceful” way to defend her land.

Another woman, 24-year-old Farah Salman, hinted at a new phase of feminism within the Palestinian society.

“Society is still not accepting of the idea of a woman working in the security apparatuses,” she said. But well, she’s breaking the rules now.

The problem, another woman said, was finding the right clothes that fit. The PA clearly has no precedent in this.

This comes only shortly after the appointment of two female judges in the Palestinian Islamic court: Khuloud Faqih, 34, and Asmahan Wuheidi, 31. The Jerusalem Post and other news sources reported on this. Only Sudan has female judges out of all the Arab countries, including the “progressive” ones like Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

Women contribution in the Palestinian society remains small. There is no dispute about that. It is great, however, to see these news. This may not only affect the overall image, but will also hopefully begin to change the perception of women’s role in the Palestinian territories, and even across the Arab and Muslim worlds.

These women will, undoubtedly, face some resistance from their colleagues and people. We have yet to know their exact impact, whether for good or bad. Either way, there’s got to be a first time in everything.

Who Are the Seven Jewish Children?

1 04 2009


Seven Jewish Children - Jerusalem Post

Seven Jewish Children - Jerusalem Post

Are you fed-up with artsy posts yet? Well, here’s one more… A long one this time.

Famous British playwright, Caryl Churchil, recently wrote a controversial play regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has received both praise and anti-Semitism accusations. Over the past few weeks, newspapers covered the play, magazines wrote about it, and bloggers typed and typed and typed.

In this post, I will give you a summary of the controversial piece, a personal opinion and finally online resources to read, for those of you who are interested. Bored already? Give it a try.



“Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza” is a short, 10-minute play, first appeared in the Royal Court Theatre, London, in early February. It reached New York several days ago, with three readings at the New York Workshop Theatre, from March 25th to 27th.  Theater J in Washington, D.C., also featured two readings with the blessing and encouragement of Artistic director Ari Roth. I’ve also read that it will be going to other international cities soon.

The play is built on seven scenes. Each depicts Jewish parents discussing what to teach their children –mainly a little girl in the form of “her” – about Jewish suffering and the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can read the New York Times Script.

“Tell her they did it to themselves,” the lines say in scene seven, “Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them, tell her I’m not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them…. Tell her they’re animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out.” These particular lines are what provoke the anti-Semitism charge.

The play peaks at the end, scene seven, where Jews transform from oppressed under the Nazis to oppressors through the State of Israel. The play ends with:

“Don’t tell her that

“Tell her we love her

Don’t frighten her.”


A Personal Take

Churchill has always been clear about her views when it comes to this conflict, and it isn’t pro-Israel. In fact, she can be more outspoken than Palestinians themselves. I have noticed that the play reads a little differently than when heard and seen. Check out the YouTube video at the end of this post to get a sense.

I agree that some of the parents are portrayed as inhumane in this play, choosing security over ethics. Sometimes they look like they’re in denial; nonchalant about the Palestinians; almost racist. 

At other times, however, they feel and look like every other parent in this world: worried about the safety of their child, filled with love, wanting to protect at all costs. That is the core of humanity.

From an art point of view, this play is beautifully-written. The repetition of the words “Tell her” in each line is deliberately crafted to engrave that message of “telling.”

“Tell her” becomes a soothing sound; calming in its consistency. You begin to look forward to it.

The simplicity of the play is exactly what makes the images it evokes most horrific. The juxtaposition of this simplicity with the harsh reality makes it artistically brilliant. “Seven Jewish Children” focuses on words and emotions rather than elaborate scenes. 


Now to the super serious stuff…

I don’t believe that criticizing Israel necessarily constitutes anti-Semitism. People criticize for many different reasons, and some of us do so because we believe there’s a better way; that there’s a brighter future and all sides of the conflict are responsible for it. The recent war in Gaza, followed by Human Rights reports and soldier testimonies did nothing to modify Israel’s image. Hence, this play.

A blogger wrote that yelling anti-Semitism with regards to this play trivializes the idea of anti-Semitism. I tend to agree.  In fact another blogger wrote that censoring this play would have worked against Jews and Israelis rather than for their benefit.

One blogger wrote a long piece justifying the existence of the State of Israel and its actions as a response to this play. Most of the anti-Israel accusations are laid out and countered with a line of thinking that follows “Well, the Arabs have done worse.” I encourage and love debate. But this line of thinking has gotten us nowhere and it is used by both Arabs and Israelis, Muslims and Jews, all across the world. It’s beginning to get a little old.

Another blogger wrote that some of his Israeli friends agree with some parts of the play, that there exists demonization from the Israeli side. I believe that all sides of this conflict dehumanize all the others. Why would we be in this situation if it wasn’t so? 

One large debate is about the title of the play. Why “Jewish Children” not “Israeli Children”? The argument is that in choosing “Jewish,” Churchill casts a generalization on all Jews, therefore, becoming anti-Semitic. The only reason I could think of for this specific choice is that this play is not just about Israelis because Churchill portrays Jewish parents during WWII. They were not Israelis then.

I will leave the debate about the BBC’s refusal to air the play on its Radio 4.

But I will add one more note: plays are not created to be impartial. Plays are not created to agree with you, and some writers’ opinions can be junk. Plays and their likes are created to express an idea, from the playwright’s point of view, from the artist’s point of view. You can’t, and shouldn’t, put chains on that. Can you image where that line of thinking would lead us? Downhill, to the dungeons of undemocratic societies.


The List

Aside from the links embedded in my previous long paragraphs, here’s more for those intrigued:

1.     Michael Billington’s review on the Guardian 

2.     Playwright Sonja Linden on Free Speech Blog in response to the BBC

3.     Norman Geras’ witty review, imitating Churchill’s language

4.     The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg interviewing Theatre J’s Ari Roth

5.     The Jerusalem Post‘s article

6.     FrontPage Magazine’s article 

7.     The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephen’s response

8.     The Nation‘s article 

9.     Mark Damazer from the BBC Radio 4 blog

10.   Ben Cohen on the Z-word blog


If you can think of more that are constructive, taking different sides, feel free to add them through comments. Rants are also fine.

Here’s a YouTube video of one reading…