Op-ed: Israeli academics lack either professional integrity or professional competence

Martin Sherman

Of late, there has been a major uproar in the media over alleged bias in the Israeli academe. The “eye of the storm” was centered on a research document published earlier this month by the Institute for Zionist Strategies (IZS), whose findings indicate a sharp bias in favor of post-Zionist perspectives relative to pro-Zionists ones in the sociology departments of all the nation’s major universities.

According to the study, this bias was reflected in the disproportionate distribution of the political affiliation of the faculty members, in the content of course syllabi, and in the nature of the activities of related research institutes.

Unsurprisingly, the publication of the findings produced an outburst of furious protest from those faculty members referred to in the study, who attempted to dismiss its significance, deny the validity of its findings and denigrate the competence of its authors.

Despite the criticism, there is in fact no real difficulty in proving that which the detractors seek to deny – namely the prevalence of a grave imbalance in the range of political opinions represented among the senior ranks in Israel’s institutions of higher education – at least as far as the faculties of social sciences and humanities are concerned.

Perhaps the most straightforward (and credible) test for anyone wishing to investigate the existence of systematic political bias in Israeli universities is what could be dubbed “The Oslo Test”. The great advantage of “The Oslo Test” is that it is extremely easy to conduct, does not require complicated methodological techniques and its findings are clear, unequivocal and easily comprehensible.

According to the methodological rationale of “The Oslo Test”, the focus of the investigation is not so much on identifying the dominance of a particular group in the Israel academe, but rather on detecting the absence of certain groups among its ranks.

‘Don’t give them guns’

The first stage of this test involves a thorough analysis of the development of prevailing realities in Israel. In this regard, the Oslo process is an eminently appropriate point of departure. After all, that process and the subsequent accords it begat, were far more than an “point of inflexion” in the development of the prevailing realities in Israel. They were in fact a “point of discontinuity”, heralding a dramatic upheaval of accepted norms and values. Suddenly, the once admirable was adjudged abhorrent; the previously valued vilified as vile; the formerly reprehensible relabeled respectable; the detestable of old deemed the desirable of today, yesterday’s foes feted as friends…

As this cataclysmic upheaval unfolded, its proponents and its opponents across the nation, each roughly equal in numbers, gathered to address it. The proponents promised benefits of approaching peace and prosperity in a “New Middle East”. The opponents warned of impending danger and disaster, of imminent death and destruction, pleading “Don’t give them guns.”

Since then, the reality that has emerged has proved to be virtually an exact reflection of the dire caveats of the opponents – and virtually the absolute antithesis of the rosy promises of the proponents. Indeed, there is virtually no danger that the former predicted that did not in fact materialize; and not one promise of the latter that was in fact fulfilled.

A review of the ranks of the senior faculty in those areas of academic expertise most pertinent to the evaluation and assessment of the Oslo process – chiefly political science, international relations and strategic studies – will quickly reveal an astounding fact: Although in the general public there were many who expressed grave misgivings as to the prudence of the process, and the direction in which it would take the nation, this was not the case in the Israeli academe.

No sign of soul-searching

Indeed, among the senior faculty in the abovementioned areas there was virtually no representation at all of the naysayers, who challenged the wisdom of the process and predicted with chilling accuracy its bloody consequences. In fact, until it was too late, there was virtually not a single tenured faculty member – and certainly not any expectant candidate for that sought-after status – courageous enough to confront the cohorts of his compliant colleagues and their chorus of complimentary consensus; there were none who defiantly dared to diagnose the structural defects in this patently reckless gamble; none to identify the manifest and manifold perils it entailed; none with the “appropriate anatomical appendages” to articulate an argued professional position against its ill-considered implementation.

This is no trivial matter! After all, it is rare indeed to find instances in which all the basic assumptions of a major policy measure involving crucial long-term strategic ramifications were disproved and discredited so utterly and so rapidly as in the case of Oslo. So the very fact that throughout the entire academic establishment not a single figure of major stature rose to express even the slightest “heretical” doubts as to the possible adverse consequences of the chosen policy -consequences that were entirely predictable, indeed predicted (by others) – implies that one of the following two possibilities must hold true:

Either the academic silence was due to the political bias of senior faculty members, who resolved not to express any opposition to the Oslo process, lest it undermine a measure consistent with their political preferences – despite the fact that they were aware of its substantive and dangerous defects.

Or this academic silence was not due to political any bias – but simply to the failure of faculty to identify and grasp the significance of these substantive and dangerous defects

The implication of this is both unavoidable and unequivocal: Israeli academics – at least those with expertise relevant to the Oslo process- – suffer either from a grave lack of professional integrity or a grave lack of professional competence. Indeed, what other conceivable explanation can there be for their miserable professional performance?

This is indeed a deeply disturbing state of affairs. But even more troubling is the fact that there is no sign of any serious soul-searching in the pertinent academic milieu to address this dismal debacle and to probe the reasons for its occurrence, or even a hint that anyone thinks such a measure is called for