Seeking intellectual integrity

Mar 17, 2011

Op-ed: Israeli academia must engage in some searing soul-searching without delay

Martin Sherman


“Had such professional misconduct occurred in the natural or physical sciences there would have doubtless been serious consequences: e.g. the collapse of a bridge following phony engineering calculations… Yet it would seem that when it comes to the social sciences or the humanities… the researcher can escape punishment for the worst kind of malpractice.”

Prof. Efraim Karsh in “Fabricating Israeli History”

The furor over allegations of post/anti-Zionist bias in the Israeli academe refuses to subside. Last week a heated debate on the topic was held in the Knesset’s Education Committee with the participation of Education Minister Gideon Saar. Clearly the charges as to deliberate ideological imbalance were not directed at the faculties of the natural or exact sciences but focused on the social sciences and the humanities.

Unsurprisingly, the representatives of the institutes of higher learning rejected the accusations of intentional exclusion of pro-Zionist perspectives, opposed any discussion of the issue, and questioned the very legitimacy of debate on the subject, warning that it constituted a grave threat to academic freedom which could undermine democratic governance in the country. As to bias in the appointment of faculty, and in promotion criteria, they endeavored to reassure the participants that these were based solely on academic achievement and professional excellence.

However their protestations raised at least two trenchant questions. First, With regard to academic freedom and its limitations: As early as 1919, the US Supreme Court handed down a seminal ruling that false statements which could inflict harm on others were not protected as “free speech” under the Constitution. Although there might be a discernable distinction between “free speech” and “academic freedom”, it is still difficult to accept the somewhat convoluted claim by the senior representatives of the nation’s universities that any public debate on academic freedom endangers its future.

Surely few would contest that the very raison d’etre of academic freedom is to facilitate the pursuit of truth and not the propagation of falsehoods. For example, it is highly implausible that a geography professor would win the support of his colleagues were he to promote a theory that the earth is flat. Similarly it would be difficult to imagine that an aeronautical engineer could mobilize much backing for his right to disseminate a thesis casting doubt on the existence of gravity – despite being able to present irrefutable evidence of leaves being wafted aloft by updrafts of air.

Absurd examples? Ludicrous comparisons? How about the claims that Israel is an “apartheid state”, implementing a policy of racial discrimination like that of South Africa, alleged proven by the different legal systems applied to Israeli citizens – whether Jewish or not – and to Palestinians without Israeli citizenship? After all, any informed observer must be aware that this disparity is not rooted in any doctrine of racial superiority, but in exigencies of security.

There is an enormous difference between legitimate disagreement on the prudence and/or efficacy of measures taken to defend one’s civilian population, and the baseless accusation that a country – in which non-Jews are elected to parliament, appointed to senior positions in the judiciary and the diplomatic corps, and serve as ministers in the government – is in any way similar to the apartheid-era South Africa.

So if academic freedom does not apply to theories of a flat earth and non-existence of gravity, why should it be invoked to cover equally ridiculous social theories?

Real-time reality check

Secondly, with regard to the significance of academic excellence in social sciences and humanities: There is indeed a manifest difficulty in ascertaining the validity of theories in these fields. So how can their quality be assessed? Do they need to be subjected to some form of testing or verification? Or is it sufficient for them to conform to prevailing fashions and norms of a closed professional clique whose members exchange mutual accolades and flattering reviews of each other’s work, while excluding any dissenting perspective, no matter how well founded?

Alternatively if mere eloquence and originality are the definitive criteria, what is to differentiate between “excellence” in these fields and a work of literary fiction, devoid of any claims to “academic research?”

In the field of social science and the humanities, it is rare that an opportunity presents itself to allow a theory to be subjected to an almost real-time reality check. Fortunately the political developments in recent decades have afforded just such an opportunity.

With the commencement of the “peace process”, the virtually entire cadre of social scientists and their colleagues in the humanities endorsed a policy previously eschewed by all Israeli government; a policy whose major thrust was wide-scale withdrawal from Judea, Samaria and Gaza and the establishment of a Palestinian state on the evacuated areas. Policy papers were written, research conducted, articles published, public declarations of support signed, all expressing professional optimism as to the rosy future this bold new vision heralded for the region. There was hardly a dissenting voice to be heard.

However, beyond the confines of the “ivory tower,” many expressed their concern, warning that the noble vision was in fact a dangerous fantasy. Then came bitter reality. And alas, the assessments of the greengrocers, the cabdrivers, the market vendors proved correct; the forecasts of the academic experts and the learned scholars, totally baseless.

Now imagine that a group of civil engineering professors were to endorse a new revolutionary system for the construction of bridges, which departed considerably from accepted principles. Suppose the new system aroused much interest at home and abroad and brought much praise to its instigators and their disciples. Unfortunately however, all the bridges actually built by this method collapsed catastrophically, causing widespread loss of life and limb. Under such circumstances, surely these “new architects” would not be showered with professional commendation; surely their work would not be branded as reflecting “excellence” and surely they would not be invited to appear as experts on bridge construction at conferences and in media-interviews – as is the case with those who endorsed the failed Oslowian “architecture” of the peace process.

The Israeli academic establishment needs to muster much intellectual integrity to scrutinize what is taking place under its alleged auspices: the propagation of baseless allegations which fly in the face of both fact and logic; misleading research whose grounding in reality is at best tenuous; almost total exclusion of faculty members who foretold the calamitous failure of the “peace process,” relative to a glut of those who did not….

The Israeli academia must indeed engage in some searing soul-searching without delay. In fact, if those responsible for its future do not initiate such a process, others will soon impose it on them.