Boycotts are an affront to academic freedom

Is Israeli historian Ilan Pappé hated because he’s a brave dissident - or because he’s a pompous ass who wants Israel academia shunned?

Nathalie Rothschild

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The most astute observation in Israeli historian Ilan Pappé’s book Out of the Frame: The Struggle For Academic Freedom In Israel is that writing about himself was an ‘embarrassing’ experience. Rarely has so much poorly structured, skewed and conceited tripe been squeezed into 220 pages.

Pappé sets out to write a ‘personal narrative’ of how he wriggled free from Zionism’s grip. How he, the child of German-Jewish Zionist émigrés, came to see Zionism as a ‘powerful indoctrination’ and a ‘racist and quite evil philosophy’. By the time he reaches the epilogue, he says he is not sure he has answered the questions he set out to explore: what triggered his ‘awakening’; how his personal journey represents a larger reality; why the Israeli public is so unquestioning with regards to the tenets of Zionism, and so on.

He does, indeed, stray far from these questions. The book is neither a life story nor an analysis of Israelis’ attraction to, or detraction from, Zionism. Neither is it an account of the struggle for academic freedom in Israel. Rather, it is a potted history of the past 20 years of conflict in Israel and of Pappé’s personal struggle to get ahead in Israeli academia while also critiquing it from within and calling on international academics to disengage with their Israeli colleagues.

Pappé sees himself as a brave dissident, claiming that he has been practically alone in withstanding the turn to militarisation, right-wing ideology and demonisation of Palestinians within Israeli academia, media, and public and political life. He portrays himself as a nonconformist, as a brave truth-sayer giving voice to ‘subaltern’ Palestinians, as a crusader-historian challenging the national consensus. He speculates about why he became persona non grata in Israeli academia, why he was excluded from public debates and vilified as a traitor.

Pappé was one of a handful of so-called ‘new historians’ who, in the late 1980s, challenged the standard narrative of the Israeli-Arab conflict. The opening of the Israeli national archives allowed these revisionist writers to scrutinise Israel’s actions at the time of the founding of the Jewish state in 1948 and to present a more complex picture than the victim-aggressor, David-and-Goliath narrative propounded by the state. Pappé is often described as the most radical of the new historians, and in Out of the Frame he suggests that his continued open criticisms of the occupation of Palestinian territories on every public stage he can get on to – both in Israel and abroad – led to him becoming a pariah at his own university in Haifa. In particular, he believes his colleagues tried to disassociate themselves from him because of the so-called Tantura affair.

A substantial portion of the book is devoted to this controversy, which was sparked by a master’s thesis submitted by Teddy Katz, a student at Haifa University, in the late 1990s. The thesis explored the fate of some villages near Haifa in the 1948 war and it received a 97 per cent mark. Katz, who relied mainly on interviews, concluded that the Thirty-Third Battalion of the Alexandroni Brigade of the Haganah, the Jewish militia which was later transformed into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), had killed up to 225 Palestinians in the village of Tantura. When a journalist ran a story about Katz’s conclusions, it sparked a big controversy, with Alexandroni veterans suing Katz for libel. Pappé defended Katz and claims that his involvement in the case caused his relationship with Haifa University to deteriorate. This was at the time of the Second Intifada when, Pappé says, there was heightened tension on campus and a growing ostracism of the university’s significant number of Arab students.

When a complaint against Pappé was lodged with the Haifa University’s disciplinary board, he fired off emails to his friends around the world, asking for their support. He devotes 11 pages in Out of The Frame to quoting from the 2,100 letters he received. They ‘make for fascinating reading’, he says.

But the complaint was lodged after Pappé became a vocal and prominent advocate of an international academic boycott of Israel, calling on international academic institutions to stop cooperating with Israeli researchers, to deny them grants and publishing opportunities. As a professor in the Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, he has continued to support the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement.

As such, Pappé and his supporters undermine rather than uphold academic freedom. Academic boycotts are the very antithesis of the principle of academic freedom. This principle requires that university be a space where ideas can be tested out and debated freely. It involves a refusal to turn the university into a pawn of one particular force, whether that is a state or a pressure group. But for Pappé, the struggle for academic freedom in Israel apparently pertains just to his own struggle to hold on to his job, to get promoted, to teach what he wants, to be invited to conferences.

The cringeworthiness of the 11 pages of letter extracts is surpassed by the following chapter, which is a fictionalised account of the events at Tantura. The story, written in a folklore style, tells of the efforts of a Palestinian historian in Israel and his Jewish student Yaacov to persuade Fatima, a survivor of Tantura, to disclose the location of a mass grave. In the introduction to the story Pappé says Yaacov is a representation of himself and it is not hard to tell who the other characters’ real-life representatives are.

This fable version of the controversy does no favours to Pappé’s efforts to reveal the facts about what happened in Tantura. If he is so convinced of the truth, why resort to fiction in an attempt to convince his readers of that truth? The fable does, however, tell us something about Pappé’s shortcomings as a historian. Not only does he resort to folklore in Out of The Frame, he also brushes over any intricate details of political trends in order to make propagandistic points, and he draws emotive parallels between disparate historical events in order to set up an easily recognisable moral framework for his readers. Israeli politics, the Holocaust, Apartheid-era South Africa and McCarthyism are all conflated here.

Pappé portrays himself as a victim, vilified and hounded because of his dissidence and efforts to reveal the truth. In fact, Israeli academia inadvertently comes off rather well in all this. Haifa University did not fire Pappé, despite his efforts to get institutions around the world to cut their ties with it and despite him publicly insulting his colleagues.

Reading Out of the Frame it is, in fact, not hard to understand why Pappé is so disliked by many in Israel. He comes across as pompous and narcissistic, insulting everyone around him while elevating himself to some kind of saintly status. He sees most Israeli academics as close-minded ideologues, while Israeli journalists are pawns of the military and regular Israeli citizens are indoctrinated fools. He thinks Israelis need to be scolded, lectured and disciplined by outsiders. As history shows, describing everyone around you as unthinking, deluded and psychologically damaged is not likely to win you many friends.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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