Global Dialogues

On Cultural Freedom: An Exploration of Academic Life in Israel, Pakistan and the U.S.

This is the first part of a two-part post. Today I focus on Israel and point to comparisons. In part 2, I explore the comparisons. –Jeff

I am mimicking the title of my second book, On Cultural Freedom: An Exploration of Public Life in Poland and America in the title of this post, as I am imagining writing a second volume, a case study focusing the theory in my book written thirty years ago to a particular cultural domain today. My thought experiment is motivated by a concern for my intellectual home, the university.

While the immediate stimulus for these reflections is the attack upon the Politics and Government Department at Ben Gurion University in Israel, first reported here on Tuesday, I think the crudeness of the attack is matched by more subtle, but also powerful, challenges to academic freedom and quality quite apparent in the United States, and elsewhere. I write about these concerns, thinking of my students and particularly of a Deliberately Considered contributor from Pakistan, Daniyal Khan.

The attack on the academic freedom of the politics and government of Ben Gurion University is straightforward political repression. There is an attempt on the part of the Israeli right to cleanse the Israeli academy of what it takes to be “anti-Zionism.” A NGO, sometimes labeled as Fascist, Im Tirtzu, has led the charge. Right-wing politicians have used institutional means to attempt a purge. There are only days left to forestall this dire outcome. (protest against these developments here)

An international review panel recommended reforms to broaden the intellectual profile of Ben Gurion University’s Department of Politics and Government (something I for one am not sure is a good idea) and the recommendations have been creatively misinterpreted by the Israeli Council for Higher Education (CHE), a government-appointed body charged with the supervision and financing of universities and colleges in Israel, to justify closing the department down. The independence of the university is under direct political assault.

This is classic case of political repression of cultural freedom, reminiscent of the fate of Socrates. The Israeli government, right-wing politicians and a segment of civil society are concerned that the Ben Gurion professors are corrupting the young, turning them away from patriotic feeling and commitment. A nice irony: the president of the university, Professor Rivka Carmi, is a leading critic of the left-wing professors of her institution, but has forcefully defended them:

The sub-committee’s decision was reached without any factual base to back it up; it is unreasonable and disproportional and most notably, it does not in any way reflect the opinion of the international committee which oversaw the process. We therefore wonder what is actually behind this decision.

A critic of the left, but also a critic of political repression, Professor Carmi is a defender of academic freedom. I would interview her for my imagined book. I would like to know in detail her reasoning and explore her judgment. I suspect a fundamental commitment to the goods of scholarship and teaching as a priority over politics and the ethos of the state would be the basis of both of her critical moves. I imagine her commitment would be to cultural freedom.

From my point of view, as the author of On Cultural Freedom, Carmi’s commitment to academic freedom can be understood in terms of three different, though related, conversations that are threaten by the actions of the Israeli state apparatus: the conversation the political scientists and theorists in the department have with their predecessors, the conversation they have with their peers, fellow researchers and thinkers in Israel and around the world, and the conversation they have with their students. Ideology and the interest of the state are disrupting these conversations.

I explained cultural freedom in terms of the conversations in On Cultural Freedom (formulated a bit differently). My point now, informed by my earlier inquiry, is that academic freedom exists if such conversations are ongoing and vibrant. It is under attack when forces interrupt them. Clearly in Israel this is happening. Even if the Department of Politics and Government is not closed down, there is an escalating demand for ideological correctness from researchers and teachers, and students learn from this. Politics is challenging academic life. I believe comparisons to McCarthyism are understatements.

Young researchers will wonder if they will get a job if their work crosses a political line. Established professors will think twice about questioning political orthodoxy, fearing for the secure positions of their departments and colleagues, and for themselves. Closing the department at Ben Gurion will close the Israeli political mind.

The academy and Israeli democracy will then suffer a serious blow. This is extremely worrying for those concerned about the independence of scholarship and education, and for democracy in Israel. Academic quality and state enforced political correctness don’t mix, and informed decision without academic quality is unlikely in a modern democracy. In my imagined book, I would spell this out.

But I would want to underscore that the threat to academic freedom does not only come in the form of overt political repression. This was a key point of On Cultural Freedom. I showed how, despite overt political repression, the three conversations were sustained, with varying degrees of success, around the old Soviet bloc. And I showed how the repressive aspects of the market sometimes worked to kill cultural freedom just as effectively as a powerful state: analyzing how this worked specifically in the cases of theater in Poland and America. In my imagined book, I would explore this insight, concerned as I am by the escalating penetration of market and corporate logic into university practice in America. In my new book, I would examine the case of the attempted firing of Theresa Sullivan as President of the University of Virginia. I would also explore how both political and economic interference in academic life affects the prospects of a new generation supporting the life of the mind on universities around the world, including a young aspiring academic in Pakistan. More on that in my next post.