Full text of Alan Dershowitz’s Tel Aviv speech

‘The burden should not only be on students to stand up to propagandizing professors who distort the truth in the name of extremist ideologies.’

I have the double honor and pleasure of accepting an honorary doctorate from one of the world’s great universities, and also of delivering an acceptance speech on behalf of the other distinguished recipients of the honorary degrees. I know I speak for all of the degree recipients when I praise the incredible accomplishments both of Israel in general over the past 62 years and of Tel Aviv University in particular over the past 57 years.

No country in the history of the world has ever contributed more to humankind and accomplished more for its people in so brief a period of time as Israel has done since its relatively recent rebirth in 1948. As one of the youngest nations in the world, and one of the smallest, Israel exports more life saving medical technology per capita than any nation in the world, and ranks among the top 2 or 3 in absolute terms. The same can be said for environmental technology, internet technology and so many other areas of scientific innovation.

(Fortunately for the rest of the world, but unfortunately for Israel, it also exports some of its best scientists and other academics to American and European universities, because the Israeli government does not fund its universities sufficiently.)

At the center of these contributions to the world are Israel’s great research universities. And at the center of these universities is Tel Aviv. Barely half a century old, Tel Aviv University has surpassed most of Europe’s ancient institutions of learning and is now the equal of virtually all. The publications, awards and recognition of its faculty rival the best faculties in the world. I am tempted to say that Tel Aviv has become the Harvard of the Middle East, but then I would not be speaking for the rest of my fellow degree recipients who might not regard Harvard as the singular measure of excellence. Instead I will say that Harvard aspires to become the Tel Aviv University of America. Hyperbole aside, I can think of no university in the world that has achieved so much in so short a period of time as has the great university that has honored us tonight. Yasher Koach.

Looking at Israel’s accomplishments over 62 years and Tel Aviv University’s over 57 years, it would seem to suggest that Israel and its premier research universities have developed in tandem and with symbiosis. And to some degree they have. Israel’s research universities have contributed immeasurably to the defense of Israel by the development of technological advances that support the mission of the IDF. And as Dan Senor and Saul Singer have brilliantly demonstrated in their remarkable book Start Up Nation, the IDF has paid back its debt to Israel’s universities multifold. The IDF has helped train and prepare many of Israel’s most innovative young women and men for the university and then for their roles in research and technology. The Israeli military plays more than a critical role in defending the citizens of the Jewish state. It also plays an important social, scientific and psychological role in preparing its young citizens for the challenging task of being Israelis in a difficult world.

All this is well and good. There is no reason why the state and its universities must have as high a wall of separation, as should the synagogue, the church, the mosque and the state. But the university must play an important role in the informal system of checks and balances that is so essential to the health of the democracy. We all learn in school that the judicial, legislative and executive branches of government must check and balance each other. But other non state institutions must participate in this important system of checks and balances as well. These checking institutions include the academy, the media, religious institutions and NGOs. The academy should not become too cozy with, or too reliant on the government. Great research universities must insist on independence from government and on the exercise of academic freedom.

Academic freedom requires that professors be free to challenge governmental policies, government officials and the status quo. Israel boasts that the highest level of academic freedom in the world today—if not in theory, then certainly in practice. I emphasize practice, because few nations in the world—even those who in theory proclaim strict adherence to academic freedom—confront on a daily basis kind of academic dissent experienced in Israel. Israeli academics regularly and falsely compare their nation to the tyrannical regime that murdered 6 million Jews. Academic dissenters regularly and freely call on other academic institutions around the world to boycott the very Israeli universities which grant them academic freedom. Professors from this university are currently in Boston demanding the shutting down of an exhibit in the Boston Museum of Science featuring Israeli scientific and technological advances in medicine, clean energy and other contributors to humanity. [Matar, Giora]

Israeli academics are free to challenge not only the legitimacy of the Jewish state but even, as one professor at this university has done, the authenticity of the Jewish people. Israeli academics are free to distort the truth, construct false analogies and teach their students theories akin to the earth being flat—and they do so with relish and with the shield of academic freedom. So long as these professors do not violate the rules of the academy, they have the precious right to be wrong, because we have learned the lesson of history that no one institution has a monopoly on truth and that the never ending search for truth requires, to quote the title of one of Israel’s founders
autobiography, “trial and error.” The answer to falsehood is not censorship; it is truth. The answer to bad ideas is not firing the teacher; but articulating better ideas which prevail in the marketplace. The academic freedom of the faculty is central to the mission of the university.

But academic freedom is not the province of the hard left alone. Academic freedom includes the right to agree with the government, to defend the government and to work for the government. Some of the same hard leftists who demand academic freedom for themselves and their ideological colleagues were among the leaders of those seeking
to deny academic freedom to a distinguished law professor who had worked for the military advocate general and whose views they disagreed with. To its credit, Tel Aviv University rejected this attempt to limit academic freedom to those who criticized the government. As Professor Shlomo Avineri, no right-winger, put it:

“The attempt to ‘protect’ those who belong to the left while employing McCarthy-style methods against those associated with the right is nothing but hypocrisy, which has no place in academia.”

Rules of academic freedom for professors must be neutral, applicable equally to right and left. Free speech for me but not for thee is the beginning of the road to tyranny.

Nor does academic freedom belong to the professor alone. As Amnon Rubenstein has brilliantly argued, academic freedom belongs to the student as well as the teacher. He has pointed out that Article 5 of the Student’s Rights Law guarantees every student “the freedom to express his [or her] views and opinions as the contents of the syllabus and the values incorporated therein.” The right of the student’s academic freedom, however, goes well beyond this law. It includes the right not to be propagandized in the classroom by teachers who seek to impose their ideology on students. It includes the right of the student to express opinions contrary to those presented by the teacher without fear of being graded down and without fear of being denied recommendations or job opportunities. Indeed, any professor who punishes a student for not agreeing with his controversial opinion is guilty of academic harassment, which is a variant on what we all would agree is an academic violation, namely sexual harassment. No teacher is permitted to threaten a student with lower grades or poorer recommendations if the student refuses to consent to sexual contact. Nor should any professor be permitted to threaten lower grades or recommendations if a student refuses to agree with a teacher’s ideology. Students are the consumers of the university and consumers have rights that, if they don’t trump those of the producer, are at least equal to them in the context of controversial ideas.

In their book Start Up Nation, Senor and Singer make a strong case that Israel’s innovative excellence is in part of function of its non-hierarchical military structure: A young 19 year old kid straight out of high school is encouraged to talk back to an officer if he or she thinks they have a better idea. Competition in the marketplace of ideas is encouraged in the IDF. It must also be encouraged in the academy where the right of a student to speak up and express controversial ideas is crucial. It is true that not all ideas are created equal and that those of the experienced professor may be better than those of the novice student, but the ultimate judge must be the open marketplace of ideas and not the raw power of the grader or recommender to impose his or her ideology. [tell Joel Pollack story]

But most universities, not only in Israel, but throughout the Western world, the loudest and shrillest voices most often come from the extremes. Today it is the hard left. Yesterday it was the hard right. The burden should not only be on students to stand up to propagandizing professors who distort the truth in the name of extremist ideologies. The burden must be shared by professors as well, especially those who disagree with the extreme views. The other side of the coin of academic freedom is academic responsibility. It is the responsibility of reasonable and moderate professors to speak out against extremist views, whether of the hard right of hard left. The silent center must not remain silent just because extremists are more opinionated and more willing to express their views. Moderates don’t get a pass. They too have an obligation to speak out, not in the classroom but in appropriate forums outside of the classroom where different rules govern. Students deserve the public support of faculty members who quietly agree with them, especially when they feel vulnerable to the power of extremist faculty who believe that their unbalanced views represent the sole truth. Great universities have the right to expect their professors to contribute to the market place of ideas when irresponsible extremists try to hijack the university’s hard-earned brand and misuse it to promote their own ideologies.

So let us join together in celebrating a great university which was born in conflict, came of age in conflict and will continue in conflict. What else could be expected of an innovative house of learning in the Jewish state. Conflict, after all, is as old as Abraham’s argument with God, Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel, the Talmud’s insistence on preserving dissenting opinions and the tradition of Jewish jokes about two Jews, three opinions. A university without conflict may be suitable for China, Iran or the former Soviet Union. But it could never find a home in Israel. Conflict, while uncomfortable, is inevitable in a vibrant democracy.

It is particularly inevitable in a vibrant Jewish democracy. To be Jewish is to be uncomfortable, to be unable to breathe a sigh of relief and declare that we can relax. Tension and conflict seems to be our destiny. It is also the road to learning, progress and innovation.

The alternatives to conflict are stagnation, certainty and censorship, which have no place in a university. So let conflict continue, so long as no voices are silenced, all points of view valued, and the marketplace of ideas remains open. I am confident that moral clarity will trump hypocrisy, common sense will prevail over political correctness, and the process of searching for truth will be encouraged. Israel will survive its dissenters, as will this great university [Sh’ma story]. While there will always be conflict, we all here today hope and expect that the state of Israel and the university of Tel Aviv will go from strength to strength.