I would not be referring to Saddam had it not been for Dr. Nitza Berkovitch’s article, McCarthyism in Tel Aviv, where she bemoaned the assault on what she dubbed “academic freedom” and various elements’ desire to politicize academia. As I discovered, Dr. Berkovitch and myself apparently hold different definitions for the term “freedom”; however, to properly explain this, I must put Saddam Hussein aside for a moment and turn to Edward Said.
Every sociology student is familiar with Said’s name, and with his book, Orientalism. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with this work, I shall briefly sum it up: Said managed to blame the imperialist, wicked West for all the East’s maladies. Every problem in the “Orient,” according to Said, stems from the manner in which the West portrayed and treated Middle Eastern nations.
As result of Said’s immense influence, to this day we see Western intellectuals and almost every Middle Eastern citizen blaming the West for everything, while minimizing the influence of religious fundamentalism, totalitarianism, undeveloped education, technological backwardness, or discrimination against women and minorities.
By the way, after managing to prompt almost every Western intellectual to apologize for his or her very existence, Said found time for other pursuits, such as hurling stones at IDF soldiers on the Lebanon border.
I became familiar with Said while studying sociology at Ben-Gurion University. That was natural, as his views are commensurate with the dominant agenda there, but even that is fine – after all, his influence was too great to ignore. However, despite the consensus he enjoys among sociologists, Said also has rivals, headed by one of the world’s greatest Orientalists, Bernard Lewis.
Lewis and others (the most prominent among them may be former Muslim Ibn Warraq) criticized Said at length. They pointed to serious methodological failures in his research, unforgivable errors of logic, and embarrassing mistakes in the historical data his arguments were premised on. Their criticism blunts, if not shatters, the sting of Said’s accusations.
However, I was not familiarized with these researchers when I learned sociology at Ben-Gurion University. I had to discover them and their criticism on my own. Every sociology student is familiar with the name Edward Said. Almost no sociology student knows the names Bernard Lewis or Ibn Warraq, and this is no coincidence.
Radical thinkers lauded
This is just one example. It is also no coincidence that most sociology students are enthused socialists. Just like me, they studied Marx, and it’s absolutely fine for them to study Marx, because how can one study sociology without studying Marx? However, there are some strong arguments in favor of capitalism as well, yet these are not being taught at all.
It’s the same story on every front – the radical thinkers who write about discrimination and exploitation will be taught and praised. Yet every different opinion that counters these views and enables the students to realize that there are other ways is unavailable.
This precisely is the problem that makes the claims about lost academic freedom laughable. Freedom always has to do with the liberty to choose between one option to another. Freedom is impossible when only one option exists to begin with, unless we are talking about Saddam-style freedom.
Too often at social sciences departments we see only one narrative, and so, instead of developing the minds of students, presenting them with a spectrum of ideas, and enabling them to choose and add their own insights, they are being shackled to one strict approach that has nothing to do with freedom. This one approach was not created coincidentally, and those who created it are justifiably drawing criticism.
Indeed, it is not desirable for academia to serve as the government’s mouthpiece. On the other hand, it’s also not desirable to pretend that politics and academia aren’t interlinked, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the sociology department. Anyone who ever read a sociological essay immediately realized that to a large extent a sociologist is just like a newspaper columnist.
The sociologist’s columns tend to be longer and more deeply reasoned, yet at their base there will always be an expression of a wholly political view.
As such, academia is necessarily tainted by politicization. However, at this time, this politicization goes one way only. This bias could not have been created in a coincidental, free manner. Hence, correcting this bias and restoring ideological pluralism does not undermine the academia’s mission – rather, it is the very mission itself.
Omer Gertel is a Ben-Gurion University behavioral sciences graduate