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<nettime> Walking into Walls, Academic Freedom, the Israeli Left, and th
Florian Schneider on Thu, 14 Aug 2008 23:39:04 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Walking into Walls, Academic Freedom, the Israeli Left, and the Occupation Within


[In October 2007 an Israeli Lawyer representing Brigade General
Aviv Kokhavi sent a letter threatening to sue the journal 'Theory
and Criticism' if they published (as they intended) a Hebrew
translation of Eyal Weizman's article 'Walking through Walls'
(posted at http://roundtable.kein.org/node/415 as 'Lethal Theory'
in 2006 and subsequently in Weizman's book 'Hollow Land').
Kokhavi claimed that the article is libelous for containing false
allegations. Below there is the editorial of 'Radical Philosophy'
(July-August 2008) relating to the affair that unfolded. The
editorial of 'Theory and Criticism' (Spring 2008) you find at:
http://roundtable.kein.org/files/roundtable/Shenhav_Theory&;
Criticism_Kokhavi.pdf]

David Cunningham:

Walking into Walls, Academic Freedom, the Israeli Left, and the
Occupation Within

Radical Philosophy, July-August, 2008

In March 2006 Radical Philosophy published a piece by the Israeli
architect and writer Eyal Weizman, now Director of the Centre for
Research Architecture at Goldsmith’s College, London (RP136, pp. 8-22).
Entitled ‘Walking Through Walls: Soldiers as Architects in the
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’, Weizman’s essay was a brilliant and
systematic account of the new forms of theory and practice at work in
recent Israeli Defence Force (IDF) urban operations; operations which
have transformed the built environment of the occupied territories ‘into
a flexible “frontier zone”, temporary, contingent and never complete’.
Surveying current thinking around urbanized conflict, Weizman records
Israeli army strategists’ appropriation of a range of ‘broadly “leftist”
theoretical ideas’ - including those of the Situationists, Bernard
Tschumi, and Deleuze and Guattari - so as to elaborate the ‘conceptual’
bases of these new military tactics. In such ways, he sought to
demonstrate, are forms of radical philosophy being ‘deployed in order to
project power, not to subvert it’.

Weizman’s essay subsequently became one of the key chapters in his book
Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, published by Verso in
early 2007. In the same year, it was also scheduled to appear, in a
revised form and translated into Hebrew, in a special issue of the
Israeli journal Theory and Criticism devoted to the occupation. Edited
by Yehouda Shenhav, a well-known left-wing academic and activist (and
one of the founders of the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition), and
originally founded by the radical philosopher and long-term critic of
the occupation Adi Ophir, Theory and Criticism has become something of a
focus for contemporary leftist thought in Israel – and, as such, a
popular and frequent object of attack by the Israeli Right (as
demonstrated by its coverage in the Israeli Academia Monitor and on the
notoriously rabid Front Page website). Institutionally, it is published,
and economically supported, by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, which,
while it is largely staffed by scholars best described as ‘liberal’ in
the context of Israeli politics, has itself been renowned, since the
‘Oslo years’, as a particular home for a small number of important
‘anti’ or ‘post’ Zionist intellectuals. Given this history, the sequence
of events leading to the withdrawal of Weizman’s piece from issue 31 of
the journal is thus especially worth recounting. For although its
context is very much an ‘academic’ one, it raises a number of issues
that invite reflection both about the situation of the Left and about
the possibility of critical thought, and of intellectual opposition, in
Israel today.

As Shenhav puts it in his editorial preface to the special issue that
has now appeared – a preface which is, it should be said, both a model
of clarity and a powerful self-reflexive interrogation of the journal’s
own role in the ‘crisis’ that now confronts it – the ultimate
non-inclusion of Weizman’s article follows a specific ‘chain of events
that generated a complex situation’ for both the author and Theory and
Criticism.  Its roots lie in the character of Weizman’s original essay
itself. For one of the most remarkable aspects of ‘Walking Through
Walls’ was the material directly obtained through interviews with senior
figures within the IDF itself, specifically with retired Brigadier
General Dr Shimon Naveh – director of the IDF’s so-called Operational
Theory Research Institute – and with the commander of the Israeli
paratrooper brigade Aviv Kohavi, a former student of philosophy at the
Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the man in charge of the April 2002
IDF operation in Nablus and the Balata refugee camp; an operation
exemplary of the new modes of urban warfare that Weizman sought to
analyse. As such, however, the article could not, and did not, shy away
from assigning a considerable measure of responsibility to these named
individuals for, in Shenhav’s careful words, ‘the great harm that the
use of these new military methods allegedly inflicted on the civilian
population’. Weizman’s article was anything but a reduction of the
structural political dimensions of what is happening in the occupied
territories - a complex and multifaceted form of spatial control and
systematic production of social, economic and political inequality - to
the personal actions of particular individuals. But it was undoubtedly
by virtue of its specific ‘personal’ focus on Kohavi and Naveh that the
‘complex situation’ to which Shenhav refers arose.

The ‘crisis’ that Weizman’s article provoked, and the difficult issues
concerning the nature of contemporary ‘academic freedom’ that it has
exposed, effectively began when the new director of the Van Leer
Institute, and thus de facto chairman of Theory and Criticism’s
editorial board, the philosopher Gabriel Motzkin, took up his post in
September 2007. At this point Weizman’s article had already been ‘blind’
refereed by two academic reviewers, and both amended and accepted for
publication in the journal. Having, however, read the papers scheduled
for publication in the occupation special issue, Motzkin made an
extraordinary and unprecedented decision. With whatever fears in mind,
and with the view that the journal’s board was obligated ‘to allow the
main object of the criticism, Brig. Gen. Kohavi, the right of rebuttal’,
Motzkin came to the remarkable conclusion that Weizman’s article should,
prior to its publication, be passed on for comment to a spokesperson in
the Israeli military itself – something that was then done without
either Weizman’s knowledge or consent.  What came back was neither a
response from the spokesperson nor from Kohavi himself, but a letter
from the latter’s private attorney threatening legal action against the
journal and its editor.

Placed in an evidently difficult position, and with advice from the Van
Leer Institute’s own lawyer that the journal might be at risk in any
libel suit, Shenhav was thus faced with two options: Either to push for
publication of the article in its existing form, and thereby risk a date
in court, or to ask Weizman to revise the article in light of legal
consultation. Weizman himself was confident that he could back up all
the claims made in the original article and was thus keen to pursue the
first course, taking the view that forcing Kohavi to testify in court –
if, as may well have been unlikely, he actually resolved to take it that
far - would also provide an opportunity to question him about actions in
Gaza and elsewhere that Kohavi and the military would rather did not
come to light. For obvious (not least economic) reasons, Motzkin and the
Van Leer Institute did not take this view.

Seeking to respond to the crisis at the journal now unfolding, the
editorial board met in late 2007 and agreed that in future no article
would be sent for response prior to publication – a decision that, in
Shenhav’s words, ‘retrospectively recognizes the mistake inherent in the
recourse to prepublication response’ – but, as proposed by Motzkin, also
resolved that, in ‘exceptional’ cases, articles might instead be
‘submitted to an additional internal review, in order to ensure that
factual allegations would be supported by adequate documentation’. This
is now the journal’s policy. Yet it is one that raises many questions,
and not only for Theory and Criticism. For as Shenhav acknowledges in
his editorial, the ‘decision to be very cautious with regard to articles
containing personal references may … contain an unfortunate
ideological-political bias’, insofar as it must necessarily confront the
question of what exactly counts as ‘adequate documentation’ in a
situation of occupation where rule is ‘decentralized and incomplete’. As
much to the point, in singling out, as ‘exceptional’, precisely those
articles that ‘include personal allegations’, Theory and Criticism now
risks, as well as retroactively rationalizing the original wrong done to
Weizman, implicitly encouraging a kind of de-personalization of what may
go on in the name of the occupation regime itself. Tellingly, the
original letter from Kohavi’s lawyer indicates ‘that not mentioning my
client in the article will certainly not detract from the ideas in it…’.
As Shenhav himself notes: ‘In effect, this attorney is proposing that
the “personal” be removed from political discussion’, reducing the
latter to an entirely abstract realm of ‘ideas’. It is far from clear
that Theory and Criticism’s present position does not threaten to assist
in such a process. Given the important role that it has played in
providing a much needed forum for critical and non-Zionist left-wing
thought in Israel, this is a matter that should clearly be of concern
far beyond the relative confines of a national academic politics. As
Weizman himself notes, one of ‘the most important outcomes of the
conflicts and exchanges around this case has been the realization of the
need to bring out the “personal” in the context of an
theoretical/political struggle, including the necessity of developing
new writing habits and different academic/publication technologies to
encourage and defend this type of work. The problem is that, so far,
critiques of “Israel”, “Zionism”, “the occupation”, and so on, like the
legal struggle against the “state” in the high court of justice, have
produced little effects, because [as de-personalized] they were easily
ignored’.

Although there is general agreement among the involved parties that the
proposed changes suggested to Weizman’s article would, in the end, have
been relatively ‘minor’ in academic terms, ultimately he felt obliged to
withdraw his piece, as did another contributor: Neve Gordon, a politics
lecturer at Ben-Gurion University best known for his own 2006 libel
action against Haifa University economist Steven Plaut for articles
accusing him of anti-semitism and support for holocaust deniers. As
Shenhav observes: ‘it seems that both Eyal Weizman and Neve Gordon have
fundamental differences [with the editorial board] concerning both the
act of documentation and the reciprocal relations between Theory and
Criticism and its political and legal environment’. Beyond the ethics of
Motzkin’s initial action – which are, one would think, self-evidently
questionable - such differences go to the heart of the difficulties
surrounding the clash between what Judith Butler has described as
‘different versions of academic freedom’ in Israel today (Radical
Philosophy 135, January/February 2006). Both Weizman and Gordon
justifiably take the view that the position arrived at by Theory and
Criticism in its relations to the occupation regime now surreptitiously
compromises academic freedom, in a way that both threatens the journal’s
own editorial autonomy and transparency, and institutionalises a form of
self-censorship which contains, in Shenhav’s own words, ‘an inherent
potential to curtail [the] ability to criticise the occupation’. As much
to the point, it is not hard to conclude that, as with the so-called US
Academic Bill of Rights, promoted by American conservatives who have
sought to rectify a supposedly left-wing and specifically anti-Zionist
bias in the US university classroom, there is not, at the heart of all
this, a deeply problematic conception of political ‘balance’ at work,
which needs itself to be subject to critical scrutiny by the
intellectual Left. (As Weizman points out, the military – hardly short
of platforms for its views – is not in the habit of inviting ‘responses’
to its own publications.) After all, the curtailing of critical
opposition and accountability rarely appears as such in modern
‘democratic’ societies, but precisely in the name of ‘balance’ and
‘fairness’ and of an equivalence of ‘views’.

What then do these ‘chain of events’ and the ‘complex situation’ they
have generated tell us about the possible nature of an academic freedom
and of critical thought in Israeli today, as well as about the nature of
the occupation regime more generally? It should be noted that Yehouda
Shenhav has himself long been a radical critic of the complacency of
much of what he calls the liberal ‘New Israeli Left’ that emerged in the
wake of 1967. In doing so he has consistently challenged, with
considerable courage, the very discourse of the ‘occupation’ dominant
within that Left, pointing to the ways in which, as he put it in a May
2006 article for the journal News From Within, it has served to falsely
‘separate the “here” from the “there” … the “external” (outside the 1967
borders) from the “internal” (within the 1967 borders)’:

The fetishism of the Green Line has a dialectical dynamics. It purifies
the occupation, reorganizes and elevates it to channels that deny the
intensity and injustices of the Israeli occupation machinery. This
fetishism allows the artificial separation between the ‘good guys’ and
the ‘bad guys’; it creates a moral indifference and hides the fact that
the Israeli colonial occupation is found everywhere, not only over the
Green Line.

In this way, the occupation regime is ‘woven into the internal fabric of
society in Israel, at all levels, and is created within it’. Such an
argument is reiterated in the first part of the editorial preface to the
special issue on the occupation that eventually appeared. As Shenhav
puts it there: ‘the paradigm of occupation was and still is anchored in
the internal mechanisms of nearly all versions of Zionism … it is turned
not only outward but also inward, within the state, where there is no
military violence but rather another kind of violence, exerted
administratively or by law’.

Shenhav’s own work is worth mentioning here, because there is a more
than minor irony, as he is clearly aware – the section of his editorial
introduction on Weizman’s and Gordon’s withdrawal is entitled ‘The
Occupation Within Us’ – in the fact that he should find himself
embroiled in a sequence of events that so markedly confirm his central
thesis. As he writes: ‘Like Israel within the Green Line, like all
Israeli citizens who pay taxes that feed the occupation, [Theory and
Criticism] does not exist outside that regime. It exists within the
occupation’s matrices of power and the military logic that shapes those
matrices’. Whatever ones position on the now stalled proposals in the UK
for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, the capacity of the
Israeli Left to critically confront the ‘occupation within’ from within
is clearly crucial to any ongoing resistance to the occupation regime
more generally. Both the Van Leer Institute and Theory and Criticism
have been central to this. If nothing else, their current ‘crisis’
emphasises the immense difficulties and complexities of such resistance
within the social and legal reality in which they find themselves today.

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