Jewish Journal

Professors Clash Over UCLA Israel Studies Program

by Idan Ivri, Contributing Writer

Posted on May. 11, 2010 at 10:23 am

The Israeli-Palestinian struggle is hitting home at UCLA. For the past several weeks, two professors have been fighting a public-relations battle over the role of UCLA’s Israel Studies Program in addressing the conflict.

The Israel Studies Program, founded in 2005, sponsors courses, hosts symposiums, and supports research and discussion about Israel on campus. By its own description, it welcomes dialogue across “different academic disciplines and viewpoints.” But professor Martin Sherman of Tel Aviv University has accused it of political bias.  Sherman, who is the Schusterman Visiting Professor of Israel Studies this year at USC and Hebrew Union College, has long rejected the land-for-peace paradigm and was Secretary General of the Tzomet Party in Israel from 1989 to 1992.

Sherman told The Jewish Journal that, in November 2009, UCLA professor Arieh Saposnik invited him to give a public lecture at UCLA on behalf of the Israel Studies Program. Sherman said that when he settled on a talk criticizing the two-state solution, Saposnik withdrew the invitation. Saposnik’s version is that he originally asked Sherman to give a purely “academic” lecture on water management in the Middle East, an area of expertise for which Sherman is known. But when Sherman instead insisted on focusing on the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, UCLA decided it would not be appropriate.

The dispute with Sherman raises doubts about whether a topic as emotionally loaded as Israel can be reduced to an academic discussion, even between two Jewish-Israeli university professors. For example, is there any apolitical way to intelligently speak about the peace process?

Saposnik is adamant that the Israel Studies Program does not favor any particular political view. But now UCLA finds itself under attack by Sherman, who sent a mass e-mail to the Los Angeles Jewish community on May 1 accusing the Israel Studies Program of “a clear attempt to impose censorship on the content of my proposed lecture.” Several more public e-mails from both sides followed.

The lecture that Sherman proposed to give is titled “Assessing Israel’s Strategic Options: What Sherlock Holmes Would Say,” based on the famous line that once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. 

In the Sherlock talk, Sherman argues that a Palestinian state peacefully coexisting with Israel is impossible for two principal reasons: First, the geography of the region means that a full-fledged Palestinian state and military would be an unacceptable security risk to Israel. Second, the Palestinians’ own words and deeds demonstrate that they do not actually desire or require a state of their own, and statehood is not necessary to improve their lives. Consequently, the lecture proposes that financial and civic incentives be offered to Palestinians to encourage their voluntary emigration to Arab and other states.

To back up his claims that UCLA censored the lecture, Sherman pointed to the e-mail correspondence between him and Saposnik from November 2009 to March 2010.  The e-mails show that Saposnik initially asked Sherman to suggest possible topics for his talk and that Saposnik first brought up water management as a possible topic two months after the initial invitation, when other topics were already on the table. “The invitation was never made specific to any topic,” Sherman told The Journal.  Sherman said the e-mails prove that he was never warned of any restrictions on his lecture and that UCLA is just using the water issue as a cover-up for the censorship. 

Saposnik said that despite the e-mails, the broader discussion between him and Sherman and their face-to-face meetings should have made it obvious to Sherman that he was being asked to give an academic, nonpolitical talk. “When an academic invites an academic to speak at an academic program, that should go without saying,” said Saposnik. Saposnik did concede that he was mistaken about the exact date he first brought up water but said that, from the beginning, “What we invited him to do is, No. 1, give an academic talk.”

Sherman selected the Sherlock talk after he rejected Saposnik’s water management idea as overly technical for a general audience. Saposnik quickly responded that he was “a bit uneasy” because the Sherlock lecture “sounds primarily like a talk promoting a particular political program.” By late March, Saposnik made clear that the lecture was off.

The Israel Studies Program does occasionally bring speakers to present purely political points of view, such as the recent “Diverse Perspectives on Zionism and Israel” lecture series. Those talks included presentations by Peace Now General Director Yariv Oppenheimer on the left and the assistant mayor of the settlement of Kedumim, Raphaella Segal, on the right. But Saposnik said that, in those cases, the political context was completely clear. According to Saposnik, the Sherlock lecture “was blurring the lines in a way that I believe would have caused damage to the academic stature and integrity of our program.”

Sherman does not buy it. “One wonders why a talk on hydro-strategy is a good fit for their program, but geo-strategy [the Sherlock lecture], which includes reference to water, is not a good fit,” Sherman said. “It’s just a blatant attempt to censor a presentation of an alternative view.”

“I don’t bring in speakers under the guise of an academic talk who promote their politics, whether I agree with [them] or not,” said Saposnik. He added that the study of Israel is particularly fraught with those who use the academic platform to make political arguments. “Usually it comes to us from the opposite end of the political spectrum” from Sherman’s position, he said.

The Israel Studies Program has influential supporters. UCLA professor Judea Pearl, president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, told The Journal that “the newly created Israel Studies Program at UCLA has all the potential to restore Jewish pride on UCLA campus—a pride that has been eroded substantially in the past few years due to a general reluctance by other Jewish institutions on campus to posit Israel as a unifying symbol of identity for modern-day Jewry.”

Pearl said that though he was not familiar with the Sherman-Saposnik dispute, “Differentiating speakers into categories is always useful for designing a rich and balanced program. That does not mean that ‘political’ or ‘ideological’ speakers should in any way be less welcome than, say, ‘scholarly’ or ‘neutral’ speakers.”

Sherman, however, takes offense even at the suggestion that his work is not sufficiently “academic,” or that he should be pigeonholed as an ideological speaker. “I’d like to see who else in the Israel Studies Program has produced such a well-documented and referenced presentation. [Saposnik’s actions] could really be considered a professional insult,” he said.  That leads Sherman to the claim of censorship: “If you assume that the two-state solution is the Holy Grail and anyone who presents a persuasive point against it is an unacceptable ideological threat, then maybe [Saposnik’s actions] would make sense,” he said.

Saposnik denied any wrongdoing: “It’s not that there is a God-given right to speak at UCLA. We asked him to come and do a particular thing, and he essentially refused to do it.” But Saposnik admitted that there was a misunderstanding.  “I could have been clearer with him from the outset,” he said.

“The worst tragedy about this, in my view,” said Saposnik, “is that [Sherman] has damaged the one body most committed to fair and open discussion of Israel on campus.” For his part, Sherman put out a call to arms in his May 1 e-mail, asking anyone who finds the dispute disturbing to contact the Israel Studies Program.

Saposnik says the upshot of the controversy has been “some angry [e-mails], some simply inquiring as to what the story is about, and others I would characterize as understanding.”

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