Not a Bunker But an Act

Out of the Frame: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel

Illan Pappe

Not a Bunker But an Act

Neil Balan

Ilan Pappe. Out of the Frame: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel. Pluto Press, 2010.

What is a university for? This is the ultimate question posed by Ilan Pappe’s Out of the Frame: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel. Certainly, academic freedom and the political relationship between Israel and Palestine are not singular or simple matters. Pappe’s book deals explicitly with academic freedom in Israel, detailing its bankruptcy and deployment as an apology for egregious violence, while setting it against an account of the political and ideological embargo on Palestinian-centred scholarship in Israel and elsewhere (including Canadian universities). On these terms, the book is valuable and effective. We can and should affirm a renewed effort to teach, learn, and think in solidarity with Palestinian-centred scholarship, especially given the paternalistic positions of many Canadian public institutions and the Harper government’s unqualified support of the Israeli state. However, we should also consider the political economy of academic freedom in Canada and the broader global struggles and transformations of the university, whether we understand them in relation to deliberately subjugated histories and knowledge, neoliberal logics of austerity, cognitive capitalism, or the creation of a private speculative utopia at the expense of common public wealth. Extending Pappe’s conclusions allows us to consider how the narrow, fetishistic focus on academic freedom tends to prevent us from providing an emancipatory and egalitarian answer to the question of what a university is for.
On its own terms, Out of the Frame is a timely and instructive book, especially in Canada where universities have been the sites of dissent and ensuing high profile controversies regarding Israel-Palestine. A few notable examples deserve to be mentioned: the so-called moratorium at Concordia University on public discussion of Israel-Palestine after protests and aggressive police reaction following the 2002 visit and planned lecture by Benjamin Netenyahu; repeated efforts by Canadian federal ministries – this year by Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney – to delegitimize and criminalize grassroots campaigns like Israeli Apartheid Week and activist, student, and academic coalitions like the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA) by equating criticism of Israeli state policies with anti-Semitism; and the assessment offered by John Thompson’s No Debate: The Israel Lobby and Free Speech at Canadian Universities (2011), a book-length investigation commissioned by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) documenting the mobilization of pro-Israeli organizations against a 2009 conference on Israel-Palestine and the complicity of university and government officials as they thwarted contentious conference discussions.
Part intellectual autobiography and part archive, Pappe recounts his struggle against the prerogative of the State of Israel’s “hermetic self-persuasion of righteousness” (47), his exodus from the University of Haifa in 2007, and his academic exile at the University of Exeter in England. His point is straightforward: what happens in Israeli universities – that is, what ostensibly happens for the public common good and open academic inquiry – is directly connected to explicit and asymmetric state political violence. This includes the Second Intifada, the 2002 incursion into Jenin, the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Operation Cast Lead (the full-scale 2009 deployment of Israel’s military capabilities against the open air camp of Gaza), and the ongoing military control, illegal civilian settlement, and de facto annexation of the West Bank. The lesson here is that political violence needs cognitive and epistemological violence, and that the university is responsible for creating a legitimizing frame and master narrative as supporting armaments.
This is a book about the politics of truth. Pappe asserts a Palestinian-centred historiography – in effect, a counter-history and pedagogy of the violated, silenced, and oppressed. This exposes three things: the politics inherent in academic history and historiography around the Nakba; the edifice of right and exceptionalism feeding the State of Israel and the continued “arming of the Zionist mind”; and the pacification and silencing of dissent in the Israeli academy alongside the widespread mobilization of academic knowledge to consolidate and continue Israeli political violence and permanent war against both Israeli and Palestinian civilians. Like the war and occupation, Israeli legitimacy rests on hegemonic epistemological and discursive foundations. These establish a frame through which the conflict is made perceptible and the intolerable is made imperceptible. In challenging the ideological status quo of disavowal, Pappe’s historical work documents the organized ethnic cleansing, displacement, and massacre of Palestinians.
For those who see the university as a black box, Pappe offers an insider’s perspective on the production of professional academic history. He emphasizes the nominal and thus inherently contested political characteristics of historical discourse and historiography. Historical work is always already an ordering of things, a record of the power to assign and distribute what can be seen and said about events, and of who can and cannot see or say them. One can validate historical work on its own terms with archives, testimony, facts, transcripts, reports, publications, sources, and so on, but it is an entirely different matter to validate, affirm, and legitimize a historical representation of events when the history in question has been aggressively and prejudiciously dismissed, elided, ghettoized, and delegitimized. The major event addressed in the book is the Katz Affair, a state-backed academic witch hunt that sought to discredit and criminalize a history Master’s thesis written by Teddy Katz and supervised by Pappe. Katz’s work detailed the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from an area between Tel Aviv and Haifa, ultimately examining and exposing – through archival research, oral histories, and interviews – the systematic displacement and subsequent massacre of Palestinians in the then-Palestinian town of Tantura.
Pappe eventually faced a commission of inquiry whose executive members used the façade of academic misconduct and charges of improper citation and attribution to silence a version of events contradicting the righteous founding narrative of Israel. Invoking the discourse of academic integrity is a common tactic to curtail academic freedom and silence political dissent, as both Ward Churchill and Sunera Thobani can attest. Pappe’s unyielding criticism led the university to pursue disciplinary measures against him in 2002 under the pretense of slandering and defaming the University of Haifa. The administration accused him of acting with impudence and in a non-collegial manner; lying; and violating the university’s code of conduct. About the charges, he writes:
In reality what I had violated was not a code of honour, but the precepts of a very inflexible ideology. I was prosecuted by those who saw themselves as the guardians of national history. As such, they could not allow a thesis like Katz’s, or my own statements and conclusions, to be accepted as the legitimate conclusions of academic research (93).
Despite the immense pressure placed on Pappe, he continued his work by offering a course in 2002-2003 on the Nakba – the first of its kind in Israel. He organized with select fellow colleagues and advocated for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, the efforts of which later coalesced as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In support, Pappe received over 2,000 letters from academics worldwide protesting his treatment and the behaviour of Israeli universities.
My engagement with Pappe’s book has caused me recurring political self-examination, most significantly when I decided to participate in a conference on French philosopher Ggilles Deleuze at Tel Aviv University in May 2011. According to BDS guidelines, conference participation, no matter how well intentioned, is still an institutional interaction that violates the boycott. The academics and intellectuals who attended the conference were dissidents in their own right; many were explicitly targeted for their criticisms of Israeli state policy. For them, the conference was a way to maintain a level of open space for academic freedom and to refuse isolation – even when papers did not include direct analysis of the occupation, the right of return, or targeted assassinations. Further, the Israeli organizers and presenters recognized the implications for foreign scholars who, in participating, would likely experience a backlash for violating the boycott. I now realize that to willingly visit and dwell within the complex archipelagos of security called Israel is to legitimize the intellectual, political, and social edifice of ongoing state violence, whether explicit or implicit. It is difficult to carefully delimit the scale, scope, and consequences of one’s engagement.
What I expected but was still struck by was the deep strategic and tactical disjunctures among progressive Israelis about changing the status quo. In offering a grim representation of the academic environment, Pappe is schematic: either you openly oppose Israeli state policy and expose yourself to recriminations, you are a slavish “parking lot” professor who whispers support, or you are an agent of the state. His narrative fails to extend into the complexity of political positions or to shed light on organizing or direct action in universities. Given Israel’s fallacious argument that its democratic status “permits” dissent and protest (i.e. Israel is not Iran), one would think Pappe would address the question of opposition more broadly. In his account, Pappe understandably identifies his enemies and laments the quiet and complicit enablers who, in not speaking out and refusing to risk their privilege, permit the abuse and degradation of academic freedom. Yet there is scant mention of other efforts, leaving us to wonder if Israeli universities are utterly lost causes. As such, the possibility for the practice of freedom in a recuperated academic environment is something left out of the book.
We should consider academic freedom in relation to the wider context of the political activism in Israel since the book’s publication in 2010. Is a Palestinian Arab Spring possible inside, and on the edges of, jurisdictions militarized by Israel? Can Israelis mobilize mass protests? Widespread public demonstrations in the late summer of 2011 by urban, secular, middle-class Israelis – known as the “Tentifada” because of the thousands who tented and occupied public spaces in Tel Aviv – targeted high inflation, escalating military/security budgets, and a speculative Israeli housing bubble. Israelis asked why, during an extended global financial crisis, the state continued to subsidize settlement land grabs and developments. Proposed by Israeli citizens, the planned boycott of goods and services from the settlements was a notable development, and it was followed by anti-boycott legislation in July 2011, which rendered economic boycotts of the settlements by Israelis illegal. Yet beyond creating a pretext for private legal action by businesses and commercial ventures in the territories, this measure is unlikely to dissuade or deter attempts to actually boycott, a less confrontational but still political act. Though critics of the global BDS movement and the localized boycott campaign within Israel suggest the difficulty of selectively or comprehensively targeting Israeli goods and services, they tend to offer little else in contesting the tactic beyond heavy-handed rhetoric about anti-Semitism and Israel’s right to exist.
If we return to my initial question, the implication of Pappe’s book becomes clearer. A university cannot be a bunker for self-valorizing scholars who simply celebrate their own resistance or dissent; it must be a staging ground for political and social action. This requires us to realize Pappe’s affirmative vision of what academic freedom must become in a pragmatic sense. That is, we should be attuned to how Pappe does what he does instead of looking for a correct position on Israel-Palestine or a program for resisting encroachments on public universities and academic freedom. Academic freedom is neither merely symbolic nor economic; that is, it is not a commodity one circulates, exchanges, and possesses. Rather, academic freedom – and, perhaps, freedom generally – is specific to a given context in which we decide whether or not to subject ourselves to consensus, demands, and injunctions. Academic freedom may very well result substantively in assigning and distributing new ways of explaining the world, affirming new imperatives to drive the historical nominations and narratives we develop to make sense of events. Yet, in a formal way, academic freedom is intransitive: it cannot be transferred and it does not travel. And while there may be degrees of resistance or complicity – we can all pat ourselves on the back for doing quiet but diligent work on important issues – it comes down to refusing to be blocked or submitting to the blockage. Academic freedom is a practice affirming the idea of basing scholarship, teaching, and the vocation of socially-engaged learning on the political refusal to consent, obediently behave, and simply accept. In doing so, we ought to revoke wholeheartedly the temptation to frame the stakes of academic freedom in Canada as less precarious than they are in Israel and reject any analysis suggesting that the political situation is less dire in Canada and hence requires less action. This is disavowal and self-deception.
Put another way, academic freedom as an act means opting for different protocols, procedures, and types of educational and academic conduct. It means electing different constituting narratives about a topic, event, or issue, and about the university itself. During his ongoing trial, Pappe describes how, after moving to a smaller community in upper Galilee, he began holding regular meetings at his home with his Israeli neighbours, creating a “home university” in his own community – that is, debating with other Israelis and taking responsibility for education in a community-based context by enabling teaching and learning to migrate and move. As a thought experiment, imagine what universities would look like if, in abiding by the principle of academic freedom, academics and scholars of all disciplines held general assemblies beyond the boundaries of university environments and asked people, communities, and constituencies what was important. This would take the venerated principle of collegial self-government in an entirely different but directly democratic direction by refusing to index academic labour to hierarchies of research intensity and knowledge mobilization metrics in a system where tenure has less to do with freedom from reproach and more to do with a contractual pact guaranteeing against the threat of economic precarity. While the range of political and social issues would be significant, as would the ideological disposition of the work undertaken along with the disagreement and dissensus, the rhetoric of academic freedom would be a step closer to resuscitation. To get there means discovering and fighting for the autonomy to determine what counts, to allocate our collective cognitive and intellectual energies, and to translate this expenditure into tangible actions and outcomes.
One does not need to politicize universities, especially those produced in the confines of the Eurocentric tradition espousing universal values while protecting privilege. They are always already political and remain contested at the outset in relation to who conducts boundary patrol, who assumes their needs will be served, and who demands physical and metaphysical access to challenge the normalized aggregation of knowledge that counts within the hegemonic order of things. The boundaries may be more indistinct and porous today but their solid architecture is still arguably inscribed on the collective political imagination. As a political concept, space, and category, the university itself is a frame, delimiting and assigning what can be seen, said, and done. Ilan Pappe’s anti-racist and anti-imperialist work makes this clear. In extending his work, we’d be wise to move past the debates on Israel-Palestine and academic freedom and begin to decide, not simply what a public university is for, but what it should and can do – or what we will make it do.

1. See The Canadian Press, “Canada-Israel ‘solidarity’ includes defence partnership,” CBC News, 20 June 2012.
2. Eyal Weizman’s work on architecture and geography of the Occupation details the confluence of military and civil logics, and is a good example of critical work making the intolerable perceptible. Weizman is a professor at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
3. Canada experienced its own lesser Katz Affair recently after a sharp public debate about a 2010 master’s thesis by Jeny Peto titled, “The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education.” Interlocutors and mediators supported and opposed her arguments about the mobilization of Jewish history and Holocaust education to justify current Israeli state policies.
4. Consider the recent rebuke and condemnation of Ariella Azoulay, a prominent Israeli cultural theorist and contract faculty member at Bar Ilan University, just outside of Tel Aviv. An outspoken critic of Israeli state policies and human rights abuses in the territories and in Israel, she was ultimately refused tenure at Tel Aviv University in the fall 2010. Notably, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) drafted and sent a letter of solidarity in defense of Azoulay.