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Is it 'unethical' to oppose the occupation in academia?

A new ‘code of ethics’ commissioned by Israel’s education minister seems to target left-wing politics in universities.

First published here:

The Israeli Education Ministry, headed by far-right politician Naftali Bennett, recently commissioned an ethical code for political conductin higher education in Israel. The resulting document (Hebrew) is a highly invasive set of political thought controls portrayed as high, dry ethical norms.

Following years of campaigns against left-wing academics, most famously by hyper-nationalist group Im Tirtzu, the new ethical code declares that its aim is to “protect students” from the political activity and views of academic faculty.

Penned by the same man who wrote the IDF’s controversial code of ethics, philosopher Asa Kasher, the code details “the limits of academic freedom,” touching on faculty and student political activity, and all other aspects of academic pursuits.

For example, on student political activity: “Freedom of expression” or “creative freedom” do not justify political activity if it harms the “dignity or political expression” of another group.

Translated in the current Israeli context, this unambiguously refers to the idea that boycotts in protest of Israel’s occupation policies could be interpreted as offensive to the dignity of students – and therefore can be prevented on campus. It could refer just as well to the commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba at Israeli universities, or questioning Zionism. It is hard to imagine the author considered right-wing activism, IDF support, or Im Tirtzu thought-bullies when drawing up that item.

Right-wing activists from ‘Im Tirzu’ protest the annual Nakba Day commemorations at the entrance to the Tel Aviv University, November 20, 2014. (photo: Shiraz Grinbaum/

The document also spends extensive space advocating “diversity” within disciplines. A chapter titled “cultivating diversity” states that an academic department — or conference or journal — that selects only a “narrow range” of “subjects or streams” (of thinking), must explicitly publicize that fact. For the uninitiated, this means: if too many faculty members are deemed left wing, they are to put up a sign. The concept closely resembles Israel’s NGO law, which seeks to shame left-wing NGOs through public markings on all their material.

At the same time, the code warns academics to teach and research only within their disciplines, through chapters with communist-sounding names: “preserving the distinctness of disciplines and their boundaries.” Another section admonishes lecturers to teach strictly according to the syllabus, which is “like a contract.” It rambles on with wordy chapters about every aspect of academia, from faculty hiring, to conferences, clinics and seminar courses, and a chapter on “other academic activity” for good measure.

Why not use less euphemistic, less ponderous language? It doesn’t take Orwell to identify a political mission, but it never hurts. “In our time,” he wrote, “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible…” For him, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”

Compare the current code, with the ethical guide published by the American Political Science Association (APSA) – not a government body, of course. APSA makes do with one line stating that political scientists “must be very careful not to impose their partisan views…upon students or colleagues.” A chapter on political activity of faculty, however, mostly encourages it: “Political activity by academic political scientists is both legitimate and socially important,” APSA says, arguing for accommodation of time and obligations. Pretty clear.

The aim of the yet-to-be-implemented Israeli academic code of ethics is unstated but very clear: if an academic department has too many left-wing faculty, the state wants it to hire right-wingers too. A department perceived as too left wing must wear a scarlet letter; the government is rescuing students from an academic plot of leftist corruption.

What led the Education Ministry to solicit this directive?

One reason might be the troubling presumption that students are automatons, drinking down the lecturers’ left-wing potions and falling victim to their spell. This sparked derisive reactions from academics: Israel Waismel Manor, a political scientist from Haifa University wrote on Facebook: “Naftali Bennett thinks I have the power to turn students into lefties – I can’t even get them to read the articles for the class.”

In my own teaching experience, I can state with certainty that my students don’t always even read the syllabus.

Moreover, despite the chronic disinclination of my students to read, they are more than eager to argue with lecturers and each other. The svengali effect the Education Ministry bestows on us lecturers is nowhere in evidence in my experience.

Then it dawned on me. This is how the Right treats its followers, as blind and dumb masses to be indoctrinated. That is how its leaders treat their citizens and constituencies, so they project hypnotic powers of populism onto left-wing academics as well.

Israeli professor Asa Kasher attends a Special Committee meeting on Drug and Alcohol Abuse in the Knesset, January 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Boycott activism on campus may be another main trigger, but the idea of a liberal bastion lingering in Israeli society is worse. At the heart of the matter is Bennett and the Right’s simple conviction, which enrages them, that academic life in Israel tilts left – in truth, I am inclined to agree with the observation. Surveys of the general public often show a moderate correlation between higher education and left-leaning attitudes. And spending years in Israel’s social science world, I would say anecdotally that many lean center or left on the core issues, while some certainly lean right – Kasher himself, the author, is a professor at Tel Aviv University –  but probably fewer.

Instead of hauling out the straitjacket, it might be time for Bennett ask an obvious question: could it be that many people who seek more information in life, as a way of life, naturally come to critical conclusions about Israel’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Maybe the ethical guide is more about weakening the foundations of knowledge, upon which many reach distasteful opinions on their own.

Among the many outraged responses to the proposed ethical code, several academics have expressed the belief that it will destroy the quality of academic research and thinking in Israel. Other sacrifices have already been made – economic, legislative, and democratic compromises – to preserve policies of occupation and reduce opposition. Maybe the quality of knowledge is one more.

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