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The Eighth Front: Against Academia

7 July 2024 |

As published in “Haaretz” in Hebrew on July 6th, 2024. By Prof. Ariel Porat.

Today, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation will discuss a bill to amend the Council for Higher Education Law. This bill would enable the Council for Higher Education to instruct academic institutions in Israel to fire professors for making statements that, in its opinion, constitute incitement to terrorism or support for a terrorist organization. Any institution that does not comply, will be exposed to budget cuts. The bill makes apparent sense: incitement to terrorism or support for a terrorist organization are already punishable criminal offenses. The bill adds another punishment in the form of dismissal from work. Why, then, do the academic institutions in Israel, every single one of them, see it as an unprecedented threat to Israeli academia? What is all the fuss about? We are all against terrorism, aren’t we?

The bill may seem innocent enough, but two main features reveal its fascistic character and its aim to subjugate academia to government control.

First, the bill requires imposing severe punishment without a trial. In a democratic state, even murderers or rapists are not punished before they receive their day in court. But according to the proposed bill, an administrative body (the Council for Higher Education), which is often controlled by the Minister of Education, will be able to force an academic institution to punish professors by dismissing them because of a statement they made. This means a person might lose their livelihood without a trial!

Second, the person who will interpret and implement the law in practice is a politician, the Minister of Education, who is the Chair of the Council for Higher Education. The Minister of Education may suppose, for example, that a professor who expresses empathy towards the residents of Gaza or severely criticizes the IDF and its commanders is inciting terrorism. Although that is not the case, the Minister may instruct the head of the academic institution to fire the professor. (There are indeed ministers and members of the Knesset who are quick to define completely legitimate statements as incitement to terrorism.) The head of the institution will have to choose between a bankruptcy of values – firing a professor who did nothing wrong – and financial bankruptcy due to the expected budget cut that would be imposed on the institution for disobeying the Minister. Although it would be possible to apply to the court with a request to reverse the decision, the trial might take years, and in the meantime, the institution would suffer serious damage and may even collapse financially (since there may be several such cases). I know what my choice would be if I faced this dilemma.

There are two reasons why it is difficult to understand what has led to the initiation of this unfortunate bill. First, the bill deals with a problem that does not exist. There is not a single case in Israeli academia of a professor who incited terrorism (for a statement to constitute incitement to terrorism it needs to generate a substantial risk that a terrorist act might be committed; it is not enough for the statement to be outrageous, infuriating, or hurtful). And even if there were such cases, we have criminal law and the Minister of National Security who can launch a police investigation in response to incitement. Why then impose the role of the punisher on universities that do not have investigative bodies or the ability to weigh evidence as the police and the courts of law do?

The second reason is that the State of Israel is now facing its most difficult hour. The Prime Minister has recently claimed that Israel is at war on seven fronts. Just a few days ago, Iran has threatened to declare a war of annihilation upon Israel if we attack to the north; in the south and north of Israel, entire communities have been uprooted and need to return to their homes; the war is still raging in the south, and many hostages have not yet returned from Gaza. How is it, then, that amid all this, the Knesset and Israeli government see fit to handle the “urgent” problem of incitement to terrorism by university professors, a problem that does not actually exist?

There is no other option but to conclude that someone up there decided that now is the right time to deal with academia. It is from the academia that critics of the government emerge; it is from the academia that criticism of the legal reform came; and it is now time to settle the score. This is the eighth front that needs to be opened.

Members of the Knesset, coalition and opposition, I urge you: do not follow this legislation initiative blindly. It pretends to be innocent, but it will become a fatal blow to the independence of Israeli academia. Surely you don’t wish for an obedient academia that is subservient to the government, such as those found in totalitarian countries. Surely you don’t wish for an academia in which professors hold back their opinions, fearing to be misinterpreted. Surely you do not wish for an academia plagued by McCarthyism. Universities are not the enemy. Without an independent academia, we will not be the same, whether in the humanities, in science, or in the strength of our security. I ask that you to deal with the truly acute and existential problems that we face, rather than with those that someone has fabricated out of thin air.

 

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