The battle of the boycotts
On August 20, an opinion column published on page A-31 of the Los Angeles Times unleashed a firestorm that continues to blaze in California, and in the normally placid city of Beersheba, home of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU).
The op-ed, entitled “Boycott Israel,” was written by Neve Gordon, head of BGU’s Department of Politics and Government. Gordon’s published plea was for “all foreign governments, regional authorities, international social movements, faith-based organizations, unions and citizens to suspend cooperation with Israel.”
“Nothing else has worked,” Gordon lamented. “The most accurate way to describe Israel today is as an apartheid state.”
Such allegations, when made by Israel’s foreign enemies, are hardly unique. But when the denouncement comes from a Jewish Israeli who, just last January, was promoted to head BGU’s Politics and Government Department, battle lines form quickly.
It’s hardly the first time “post-Zionist” academics have clashed with the traditional Zionist crowd, but Gordon’s op-ed pushed the debate into new territory. Gordon’s words even closer to home in that his proposed boycott would do irrevocable harm to a popular university, specifically one which pays his salary.
When the horrified “traditional Zionists” turned out to be wealthy Jewish Americans who donate tens of millions of dollars to keep BGU alive and growing, the dispute was raised to a new level. Many of the donors find themselves saying, “If BGU professors feel free to invite the world to boycott Israel, then perhaps the time has come to boycott BGU. Next time around, maybe we should sit on our checkbooks.”
Ari Bussel, for years a pro-Israel, pro-BGU activist and a leader in the local chapter of American Friends of BGU, was among the first to spot Gordon’s LA Times op-ed.
“It was Thursday morning,” the Beverly Hills-born Bussel recalls. “The LA Times was delivered to our doorstep as usual. I saw Gordon’s piece, read it, and at first I wasn’t all that surprised. It’s not unusual for the LA Times to print this sort of anti-Israeli rhetoric. I’ve come to expect it. But a few minutes later, I began to see that there was something qualitatively different about this article.
“The local reaction was unbelievable,” he continued. “An absolute avalanche of opposition erupted, and our phones were ringing off the hook. People who, on August 19, wouldn’t have given each other the time of day, were calling each other and everybody else they knew. They all asked the same question: ‘Who’s giving money to BGU?’ There are some big donors in this area. Very big. I’ve never seen anything like it.
“Before this hit, I’d never heard of Neve Gordon,” says Bussel, who lived in Israel for years and served in the IDF during the First Gulf War. “For an American, even for someone involved in Israeli affairs, Gordon hadn’t seeped into the American national consciousness. But this anti-Israel commentary hit home.
“For some of us, it may be the first blossoming of the idea that President Obama has become our downfall,” he speculates. “Clearly, things are changing. Something is happening to alter people’s perception and approach to this kind of Israel bashing. And it’s not over – people are still calling, talking and writing. Three weeks afterwards, the LA Times was still printing readers’ reactions. Something important happened when this piece was published.”
Unless one is a news junkie, an academic, or closely involved with BGU, the name Neve Gordon may not ring many bells among mainstream Israelis, either. Even so, within 48 hours, 4,000 emails protesting Gordon’s remarks had landed in the inbox of BGU President Rivka Carmi. Several days later, Carmi responded to her department head’s call for a boycott through her own LA Times op-ed, admitting that she was “shocked” at what Gordon had written, suggesting that even she hadn’t been fully aware of what she called Gordon’s “destructive views.”
“We are shocked by Dr. Neve Gordon’s irresponsible statements, which are morally deserving of full condemnation,” she wrote. “We vehemently shake ourselves free of the destructive views [advocated by Gordon], who makes cynical use of freedom of expression in Israel and Ben-Gurion University.”
NOT EVERYONE was shocked. For years, watchdog organizations like Campus Watch and IsraCampus had monitored Neve Gordon’s words and activities, even before Gordon made international news during the “Siege of Ramallah,” when, in 2003, he joined Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, holed up in his Ramallah compound. Defying IDF orders which forbade his entry to Ramallah, he moved in to protect Arafat, taking up a position as a “human shield.” During the height of the intifada, when suicide bombers belonging to the military wing of Arafat’s movement were blowing up Israeli cafes and buses, a photo of Gordon and Arafat, hands joined and held high in solidarity, splashed across the front pages of Israeli newspapers.
According to documents compiled by watchdog IsraCampus (www.IsraCampus.org,il), Gordon’s dissident career was politically consistent. Calling Israel an “apartheid” state had long been part of his anti-Israel rant. Last December, at the height of Operation Cast Lead, as Hamas rockets and missiles slammed into Israel – including striking the BGU campus – Gordon again spoke out, denouncing not Hamas but Israel.
Over the years, Gordon’s commentary attracted an unusually diverse crowd of supporters. Despite being Israeli and Jewish, he regularly published his highly controversial views on websites and magazines accused of Holocaust-denial, and ultimately became a regular columnist for Al Jazeera, a Qatar-based Arabic media outlet. From there, he preached that Israel was opposed to peace and was plotting to steal Arab lands.
Some of Gordon’s antics went beyond theory. In one incident, Gordon defended Azmi Bishara, the disgraced former Israeli-Arab MK, a man still wanted by the Israeli authorities for alleged spying and assistance to the terrorist group, Hizbullah. In his impassioned defense of Bishara, Gordon falsely accused his former Army commander, Aviv Kochavi, a decorated officer, of being a war criminal. As a result, Kochavi’s career was sidelined when he was barred from entering Great Britain where he’d previously been accepted for study.
In left-wing circles and academia, all of this was well known, but none of it seemed to matter to BGU. Shortly after the public hand-holding with Arafat, Gordon was promoted at BGU and granted tenure. Just last January Gordon was again promoted, this time to department head, immediately after completing a highly controversial sabbatical year at the University of Michigan. In Michigan, according to local students, Gordon exacerbated anti-Israel tensions by always referring to Israel as an “apartheid regime,” suggesting Israel may be even worse than South Africa.
During “Palestinian Awareness Week” Gordon gave a talk “From Colonization to Occupation,” in which he expressed support for a “one state solution.”
THROUGH ALL this, Gordon remained popular at BGU, both with the administration and among his fellow professors. When he occasionally attracted unfavorable publicity, Carmi defended him as a “serious and distinguished researcher into human rights,” lashing out at his detractors by calling them “Kahanists.”
Nor was Gordon alone in his views at BGU. Shortly after the BGU president pleaded in her op-ed response for the continued support of the university despite the “egregious remarks of one person,” evidence emerged to the effect that Gordon wasn’t just “one person.” Prof. Fred Lazin, who teaches political science within that department, acknowledged that before Gordon submitted his op-ed to the LA Times, Gordon submitted his remarks to the department as a whole, offering to step down as chair if they thought his words would prove too embarrassing. “There was a unanimous decision not to let him do that,” Lazin said.
David Newman, Gordon’s BGU colleague, championed Gordon’s remarks. “This is something which Israel’s universities can be proud of,” Newman wrote in a Jerusalem Post op-ed. “It is this level of democracy, pluralism and freedom of speech which few in the world, not least many of those proposing boycotts from abroad, can share.”
Indeed, other BGU departments – geography, history and sociology – also harbor professors who share Gordon’s anti-Zionist, anti-Israel views. Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, who teaches in BGU’s Department of Jewish History, had also denounced Israel as an “apartheid regime” in Tikkun magazine.
Students were supportive, too. A contingent sent their own letter to Carmi, expressing support for Gordon’s “welcome efforts to bring important issues to the public regarding the future of Israeli society – issues that are absent from the legitimate public dialogue.”
“We are taught history but it seems we are not allowed to learn from it,” the student letter read. “We’re allowed to learn, but not to think, not to reach practical conclusions…”
Nor is Gordon’s support limited to just BGU. Petitions supporting Gordon began circulating not only at Beersheba University, but at other academic institutions as well. At one point, over 185 Israeli professors, from several institutions, signed petitions defending Gordon.
ON THE other side of the ideological divide, among both Israelis and Americans, the reaction to Gordon’s comments ranged from pure fury to thoughtful consideration of what could be done.
Haifa-born Nurit Greenger, now living in Beverly Hills, for many years a BGU supporter, was among those who were furious. In a letter to fellow Israel supporters, Greenger wrote, “For years this Israeli citizen, Gordon, walked a marginally seditious line, but with his call to boycott Israel he crossed that line monumentally.”
“His call,” the letter went on, “to boycott Israel raises the question: How many more ‘Gordons’ live in Israel and are teaching the next generation to undermine their own homeland’s existence?”
In a phone interview, Greenger spoke bluntly. “I’m very angry about Gordon’s call to the whole world to boycott Israel. It’s a very serious problem.”
Greenger is among those calling for a boycott of BGU. “It’s an oxymoron,” she says. “BGU comes to us all the time, asking for money – ‘Support the University! Support BGU! We make the Negev bloom! We have all these wonderful projects to help our beautiful Israel’ – but then they allow professors to publish articles in the LA Times, begging the world to boycott Israel? That’s crazy! Then they get upset when we question them? They want our money, but at the same time they’re telling us we shouldn’t look at what their professors are doing and saying? The time for that is long over.”
Encouraging “key donors” to support other Israeli institutions instead of BGU is one of Greenger’s missions. “It’s time for us to exercise some ‘academic freedom’ of our own,” she says. “We need to decide which of Israel’s academic institutions we wish to support. The way to cure anti-Israelism is to redirect benefactors’ funds from the kind of places that hire people like Neve Gordon, and channeling it instead to educational institutions that hold strong Zionist sentiments, Ariel University, the Jerusalem College of Technology, the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering.”
There were students among the traditional Zionists, too. “Im Tirtzu” (“If You Will It”), a pro-Israel student organization at BGU, began circulating a petition against Gordon. Within two days, 54 instructors at BGU had signed.
The petition criticized Gordon for exploiting academic freedom and freedom of speech, noting the BGU’s funding comes from the very country he’s is asking the world to boycott. They characterized Gordon’s view as that of a “fringe group of daydreamers among Israeli academia in general, and BGU in particular,” adding that Gordon’s leftist activities made them ashamed to have him on the staff.
THE IMMEDIATE impact of the Gordon piece resulted in community meetings where BGU supporters – and former BGU supporters – gathered to discuss strategy. They also contacted Israel’s Consul-General in Los Angeles, Yaakov (Yaki) Dayan, who ultimately sent a letter Carmi, advising her that Gordon’s statements were proving “detrimental” to the university.
“Since the article was published I’ve been contacted by people who care for Israel,” Dayan wrote. “Some of them are benefactors of BGU. They were unanimous in threatening to withhold their donations to your institution. My attempt to explain that one bad apple would affect hundreds of researchers turned out to be futile.”
PART OF what irks traditional Zionists about Gordon’s tactics is his demand for complete freedom of speech for himself, but not for anyone who disagrees with him. Gordon went so far as to file a SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), designed to discourage critics, against University of Haifa professor Steven Plaut.
For anyone lucky enough to be watching from the sidelines, the Gordon vs. Plaut litigation ranks as one of the more entertaining chapters in the annals of Israeli legal history. Not so for Plaut, presumably, since he was paying his own legal bills.
It began when Plaut, himself a tenured professor and a long-time critic of Gordon’s politics, took Gordon to task by publishing an op-ed on the website of a now-defunct California organization. Plaut criticized Gordon’s long history of publishing in Holocaust-denial websites and magazines.
“It was right after the Ramallah incident,” Plaut says. “I called him a ‘Judenrat wannabie.’ I didn’t attack him personally – I attacked his politics. Look, Gordon writes his own columns, he’s a public figure. Criticizing his politics is what freedom of speech is for. I also called him ‘a groupie of the world’s leading Jewish Holocaust denier, Norman Finkelstein.'”
Gordon could hardly dispute that, Plaut notes. “Gordon had compared Finkelstein to the prophets of the Bible. But somehow Gordon came across my internet column, hired an Arab lawyer to represent him, and filed suit for libel. He didn’t like being in the same sentence with the words ‘Holocaust denier,’ even though I’d said that about Finkelstein, not about him.”
Plaut, like Gordon, believed himself to be exercising his basic right to freedom of speech. “In Israel, there’s supposed to be absolute freedom of speech in terms of criticizing another person’s politics. No one has ever been punished for that. I was just making fun of his politics.”
Although lawsuits are normally filed in the hometown of either the plaintiff or defendant, Gordon filed his suit in Nazareth. “Gordon lived in Jerusalem, teaches in Beersheba, and I live in Haifa,” Plaut says. “I can only suppose that by filing in Nazareth, Gordon hoped to get a favorable Arab judge – which he did. When the decision came down, I think everyone was astonished to see how Judge Reem Naddaf used her decision to attack Israel.
“She wrote into her opinion that all of Israel – all, not part – was built on land stolen from other people,” he continues. “Then she went on to justify Holocaust revisionism. In her decision, the judge wrote things not even Neve Gordon had said.”
She also imposed a whopping fine. “Gordon hadn’t alleged any financial losses,” Plaut says. “But in a libel suit, Israeli law permits the award of NIS 50,000. She fined me NIS 100,000.”
That’s when Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, a major player in the US legal community, jumped in with his incisive commentary. In a column published in the Jerusalem Post on November 8, 2006, Dershowitz addressed the issues and then wrote, “It is my opinion that Neve Gordon has gotten into bed with neo-Nazis, Holocaust justice deniers, and anti-Semites…. he is a despicable example of a self-hating Jew and a self-hating Israeli, whose writing consists of anti-Israeli propaganda designed to ‘prove’ that the Jewish State is fascist.”
Then Dershowitz issued his own make-my-day challenge to Gordon: “Sue me, too.”
Gordon didn’t sue Dershowitz, brushing off his challenge as “a cheap dare,” while Plaut appealed the Nazareth decision. In a stunning reversal, a three-judge panel rejected every demand made by Gordon and agreed to almost all of Plaut’s. Legal decisions are rarely characterized by speculation, but one of the appellate judges, Judge Abraham Abraham, offered unique commentary in his written opinion. “Even if Plaut had described Gordon as a “Jew for Hitler,” (which Plaut had not) he would have been within his rights,” the judge wrote.
While the most recent court decision was a victory for Plaut, the litigation continues, with the case set to be heard by the Supreme Court on October 13.
SOME COMMENTATORS claim that the real danger of this internal Israeli call for a boycott against Israel is that it encourages and provides cover for anti-Israel sentiments in the international community.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University who heads the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, sees Gordon’s call for a boycott as part of a series of events designed to “demonize” Israel.
“Neve Gordon and his pro-boycott article … is another example of the Durban [an anti-Racism conference which was largely seen as anti-Israel] demonization strategy based on total international isolation of Israel through boycotts and sanctions in order to follow the South African anti-apartheid model,” Steinberg said, referring to Israel’s recent clashes with Sweden over their “stolen organ” blood libel and Great Britain, whose funding of “Breaking the Silence” encouraged Israeli soldiers to admit to IDF war crimes.
There were those who, while angered by Gordon’s call for boycott, took a more philosophical approach, seeking a way to balance “academic freedom” with the best interests of the community.
In any communal organization, no one enjoys unrestricted rights, they note. Just as the right to swing your arms stops where the other fellow’s nose begins, why can’t there be some limit on the things anyone – professor or not – is entitled to say, if his words will prove detrimental to the community as a whole?
The Zionist Organization of America has not yet issued a policy statement regarding the Neve Gordon/BGU affair, but Jeff Daube, Director of the Israel ZOA office and a life-long Zionist activist, articulated a common sentiment. “My desire is not to constrain anyone’s freedom of speech,” Daube said. “But I think there’s nothing at all wrong with a university saying, ‘This is a Zionist institution. Statements (like Neve Gordon’s) do actual harm to the collective, to the Jewish people living in Israel. Just as most societies limit free speech when the speech will prove harmful – libel or slander – then if some speech brings harm to the society as a whole, why can’t that be limited as well?'”
Other suggestions were put forward, such as encouraging BGU to hold a public meeting on the topic, to allow everyone to have a right to exercise their freedom of speech, or establishing campus “Zionist Centers” to teach Zionist principles. Daniel Gordis of the Shalem Institute advocated a wholesale revision of the education system.
“A century ago, who could have imagined that the Jewish state would one day have a world-class army but a failing, collapsing education system?” he wrote. “(Israel) needs a liberal arts college, and the young people prepared to speak constructively about Jewish sovereignty, its challenges, its failures and its future that only that kind of college can produce.”
THE CALL to “boycott BGU” threw university officials into a panic, resulting in a flurry of commentary, as well as a quickly-scheduled trip to the US by Carmi and other faculty members hoping to stem the tide of opposition.
Their position: Boycotting BGU – or any other Israeli educational institution – isn’t the answer.
Ronni Strongin, another member of the American Associates of BGU, stressed that since Gordon “has tenure and cannot be fired,” the university finds itself in an impossible position. The University, she noted, includes some 25,000 students, faculty and staff with many different missions. To inflict collective punishment by withholding funds from the university as a whole “allows the fulfillment of Gordon’s wishes.” Within a week, BGU issued statements to the effect that Gordon will not be fired, although BGU officials are still considering their options regarding removing him as department head.
Carmi insists there’s little the university can do to a tenured professor. “Like it or not, Gordon cannot be readily dismissed. The law in Israel is very clear, and the university is a law-abiding institution,” she wrote in her LA Times response, and in a later statement to YNet, she said that “the demand for (Gordon’s) resignation (as department head) is legitimate and I hope that after this tough week he will reach the right decision.”
University Rector Jimmy Weinblatt, following a meeting with the professors who had signed petitions supporting Gordon stressed that Gordon’s status as faculty member will not be compromised, and that the university administration will not violate his civic and academic freedom of expression. Weinblatt, who said he believes “it is not appropriate that Gordon continue in his position” and hopes “he (will) reach the proper conclusions,” said of university policy, “we are a democratic country with freedom of expression for everyone, even if his opinions are unacceptable to the rest.
“We support freedom of expression and academic freedom which are at the heart of any university,” he added.
Jonathan Rosenblum was among those who upheld the legitimacy of a donor boycott. In a Jerusalem Post op-ed, he wrote that “while an academic has the right to his opinions, private donors who find his views or research repugnant are equally entitled not to support that research. Given the fungibility, of money that might mean withholding support from the university that employs him.”
Professors, Rosenblum suggests, cannot be held immune from criticism. “Professors, like everyone else, should expect to have their work evaluated. Just as parents and students have an interest in knowing which professors have a tendency to get too friendly with female students, so do they have a right to form judgments about which professors are using their classrooms for political indoctrination.”
“In general,” Rosenbaum continues, “it would be foolish to refrain from contributing to a university based on the views of one faculty member one finds repugnant. Doing so would eliminate virtually every potential recipient. But Neve Gordon is not a solitary rogue professor on the BGU campus. The BGU Department of Politics and Government, which he chairs, fits the description of former Minister of Education Amnon Rubinstein of academic departments in Israel, in which no traditional Zionist could be appointed.”
NEITHER SIDE is happy. BGU officials rue the fact that they’re under pressure from two sides. “We have heard the calls by those who demand that the university ignore Israeli law and fire Gordon, a tenured faculty member,” Carmi said, “And we are also under attack by others who champion Gordon on the basis of freedom of speech.”
Given the fact that BGU officials insist Gordon will remain as a member of the faculty, those who oppose Gordon’s continued presence on the teaching staff at BGU were also unhappy.
Jeff Daube suggests the tension is far from over. “It’s obvious that President Carmi would very much like to sweep this whole affair under the carpet, move on to something else, make believe it never happened – up until the next insult. From here on, it’s only going to get worse. If those who hate Israel see they can get away with this kind of speech, I hate to think what else they’ll do next.
“Once you’ve called for an international boycott, what’s left?” Daube asks. “Maybe a call for the unilateral dismantling of the State? Followed by that line, ‘Would the last one to leave please turn off the lights’?”
Nor does Ari Bussel believe any significant donor boycott of BGU will take place. “The major donors will be persuaded to go on giving money,” he says. “It will be life as usual. The difference this case made is that it set off a fundamental change in the attitude of American Jewry. Now the red line has been crossed. So the next time this happens – which it will – it’s going to be much more difficult to persuade donors to keep supporting BGU.
“There’s only so much one person can do,” Bussel laments. “I know that at the end of the day, people pay the price for what they do – we all will. But one thing I know for sure. The next time I go to someone and ask for money for Israel, I know it’s going to be that much harder. How are we – how are any of us – going to fight the next call for divestment, or for a boycott, if Israel itself is calling for it?”