The Academic Blacklisting of Israel, the Tantura Affair and Ilan Pappe

On April 22, 2005, an executive council meeting of the 40,000-member British Association of University Teachers (AUT) heard motions from Birmingham University lecturers Sue Blackwell and Shereen Benjamin to initiate a boycott against Israeli universities.

Calling Israel a “colonial, apartheid state” whose regime should be removed, they claimed academic freedom was being repressed in Israeli universities. The motions called for boycotts of Hebrew University, alleging it had confiscated Palestinian land, of Bar Ilan University, claiming it supervised degree programs at the College of Judea and Samaria in the “illegal settlement of Ariel,” and of University of Haifa, alleging it repressed academic freedom.

AUT president Angela Rogers did not allow anyone present to challenge the motion, claiming there was no time. Thus, members were asked to vote without hearing the arguments of the proposal’s opponents.

The council voted to sever all academic and cultural links with Bar Ilan and Haifa universities, “to circulate to all local associations a statement from Palestinian organisations calling for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions,” and to defer the call to boycott Hebrew University for further investigation.

Announcement of the AUT decision to boycott sparked a bitter internal debate and an international firestorm over the executive committee’s kangaroo-court procedure and judgement. Worldwide criticism of the AUT’s biased decision-making was so great that on May 26, 2005, just over a month after the original vote to boycott, the committee reconvened and rescinded its resolution.

The Allegations against the Universities

Clearly, the AUT’s indictments of Israeli institutions violated the principles of due process with none of the accused even permitted to respond to the charges against them.  Most critics of the boycott saw the AUT’s accusations as politically motivated and possibly anti-Semitic in nature, and, indeed the charges leveled underscore the prejudice of the campaign.

Bar Ilan University was accused of being “directly involved with the occupation of Palestinian territories” because of its association with the College of Judea and Samaria. In fact, the university’s association with the independent College of Judea and Samaria consisted of granting university credit for approximately three percent of the courses given at the college. The AUT voted to “sever all academic links” with Bar Ilan University “and with any other college located in an illegal settlement in the Occupied Territories.”

Setting aside the distorted charge that settlements are “illegal,” Bar Ilan representatives contend that by supervising course standards at the smaller college in Ariel, the university has attempted to bring higher education to students on the periphery, including ethnic and religious minorities. While this is not as well-know as it should be, quite a few students at the College of Judea and Samaria are Arabs from small villages inside Israel. Therefore, AUT’s argument that Bar Ilan is engaging in academic repression, is rather hollow, at best, considering the university is providing egalitarian education to minority communities. In any case, the agreement for Bar Ilan to validate courses given at the College of Judea and Samaria was slated to end in 2005 in any case, emphasizing the political rather than practical underpinnings of the boycott proposal.

The allegation that the Hebrew University had confiscated land from a Palestinian family in Jerusalem to expand its university campus was considered questionable even by the AUT committee which voted to refer it for further investigation. The university holds legal ownership of the land in question—and nonetheless offered the family in question both alternative housing and generous financial compensation.  Several court proceedings ruled in favor of the university.  Yet the AUT committee refused nevertheless to dismiss the allegation outright.

The charges against Haifa University were more complicated but equally false, bringing to center stage Ilan Pappé, an anti-Zionist ideologue who has long teamed up with anti-Israel activists to undermine the Jewish State. Pappé is, ironically, a tenured Israeli professor at Haifa University—one of Israel’s most liberal institutes, considered a model of Jewish-Arab cooperation and reconcilation, with a high percentage of Arab students and faculty members.

AUT’s stated reason for boycotting Haifa University was that it victimized academic staff and students “who seek to research and discuss the history of the founding of the state of Israel,” specifically:

That on May 15, 2002 Dr. Ilan Pappé, senior lecturer in Political Science at Haifa University, was sent a letter notifying him that he faced trial and possible dismissal from his position. The charge was that he had violated “the duties of an academic member of staff”, that he had “slandered departments and members in the humanities faculty, damaged their professional reputation and endangered the possible promotion of some of them.”

That these accusations related to Dr. Pappé’s efforts to defend a 55-year-old graduate student, Teddy Katz, whose Master’s thesis was under attack by an Israeli veteran’s organization because it documented a massacre of 200 unarmed civilians by the Haganah (the pre-state army of Israel) at a village called Tantura, near Haifa.

The AUT motion was based on Pappé’s own calls to the international community to blacklist Israeli institutions in general and Haifa University in particular, thus helping to “expose the false pretense” that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East.”

Pappé claimed that he was threatened with expulsion from the university for supporting an unpopular student thesis describing an Israeli-perpetrated massacre on the Arab village of Tantura. He alleged that Haifa University and Israeli academia in general were trying to “silence academic freedom” and urged the international community to become “part of a historical movement and moment that may bring an end to more than a century of colonization, occupation and dispossession of Palestinians.” By boycotting “those academic institutes which have been particularly culpable in sustaining the oppression since 1948 and the occupation since 1967,” he suggested, the international community might bring “an end to the evil perpetrated against the Palestinians in the occupied territories, inside Israel and in the refugee camps.”

But Pappé’s claims about University of Haifa, the alleged massacre, and Israel in general were false.

The Tantura Affair and its Aftermath

Theodore (Teddy) Katz, a kibbutznik and supporter of the left-wing Meretz party, submitted a Master’s thesis in 1998 to the University of Haifa, alleging a previously unknown massacre by Israel’s army had taken place in the Arab fishing village of Tantura during the1948 war. Purportedly based on testimonies he had gathered from 60 Tantura residents, Katz claimed that over 200 Arab villagers had been lined up and slaughtered by the IDF’s 33rd battalion after surrendering on May 22-23, 1948.

In an apparent attempt to join the ranks of the post-Zionist “new historians” who profess to re-examine Israel’s history and dispel what they claim are “Zionist myths” of heroism and bravery, Katz contacted journalists and television crews to try to publicize his story across the country. On Jan. 21, 2000, the Israeli daily Ma’ariv carried a five-page story by journalist Amir Gilat promulgating Katz’s claims.

Having discovered they were publicly accused of war crimes in the pages of Israel’s largest newspaper, veterans of the 33rd battalion of the Alexandroni Brigade were outraged. They maintained that the battle for Tantura was a strategic one, an attempt to stop the maritime smuggling of arms and food and to prevent the Haifa-Tel Aviv road from being cut off; and that throughout the fight for survival in a bloody war launched by the Arabs, they had maintained the strictest ethical standards. While the battle for Tantura was difficult – 14 members of the IDF battalion and about 40 Arabs were killed in street fighting – the veterans insisted Katz had lied about a massacre.

Indeed, they noted that by 10 a.m. on the morning of the alleged massacre, 99 percent of the villagers had already been transferred out of Tantura —the women to the nearby village of Faradis, and the fighters to the Zichron Ya’akov police station. In April 2000, attorney Giora Erdinast, a Peace Now activist and son-in-law of one of the battalion members, agreed to represent the veterans and filed a libel suit in Tel Aviv court against Teddy Katz. Katz reportedly received approximately $8,000 from former Palestinian Authority minister Faisal Husseini to pay for his defense.

During the December 2000 trial, attorney Erdinast discredited Katz’s so-called evidence. For example, in his thesis Katz had quoted a central witness called Abu Fahmi saying that the IDF had rounded up villagers, lined them up against the walls and murdered them. Erdinast, having obtained a court order forcing Katz to hand over the tapes of his interviews, demonstrated that there were no such quotes. On the contrary, Abu Fahmi had repeatedly asserted that the IDF did not murder the villagers after they surrendered.

Confronted with many such gross discrepancies between the quotes in his thesis and the recorded interviews, Katz insisted under oath that he had been misunderstood and that he had never believed there was a massacre. Under court order, he later signed an apology and agreed to publish ads at his own expense publicizing his disavowal of the massacre claim. He wrote:

After checking and re-checking the evidence, I am now certain beyond any doubt that there is no basis at all for the allegation that after Tantura surrendered, there was any killing of residents by the Alexandroni Brigade, or any other fighting unit of the IDF. I would like to clarify that what I wrote was misunderstood, and that I did not mean to suggest that there had been a massacre in Tantura, nor do I believe that there ever was a massacre at Tantura.

But within a day, Katz recanted his apology, claiming that because he was in poor health he was pressured by his family to sign an apology in exchange for dropping the charges against him. He insisted now that he was “sure there was a massacre even if I can’t know because I wasn’t there.” The judge refused to accept Katz’s retraction, and his appeal to a higher court was similarly dismissed.

Meanwhile, University of Haifa appointed a committee to re-examine Katz’s thesis. The committee discovered fabrications and distortions of quotes in Katz’s work and disqualified the thesis, removing it from the university’s bookshelves. Katz accepted the offer to revise his thesis, and resubmitted it in 2002 to five new university-appointed examiners, but the new, lengthier thesis did not receive passing grades; Katz was awarded a “non-research” degree.

Ilan Pappé, Katz’s mentor and unofficial advisor – Katz’s thesis director was Druze historian Kais Firro, but the work was dedicated to Pappé,”my teacher and friend” – made the student’s case his cause de jour, insisting Katz’s claims were true despite the discredited evidence. Feeding Palestinian eagerness to adopt the debunked “Tantura massacre” as part of their historical narrative, Pappé wrote an article for the Journal of Palestine Studies, expanding upon Katz’s original claims and excoriating the Haifa university for not accepting “a solid and convincing piece of work whose essential validity is in no way marred by its shortcomings.” Indeed, the introduction to Pappé’s article stated:

Though the researcher, Teddy Katz, is himself a Zionist, the case sheds light on the extent to which mainstream Zionism is prepared to go in discouraging research that brings to the fore such aspects of the 1948 war as “ethnic cleansing.”

Pappé then used his article to appeal to the international academic world to pressure University of Haifa  to back down on the decision to disqualify Katz’s thesis. Describing the work as the revelation of “one of the worst massacres in the war” in a letter to American and British historical and Middle Eastern societies, Pappé requested their intervention because “Israeli academics cannot find in themselves the courage to remain loyal to the basic rules of academic research and freedom.”

This letter, as well as Pappé’s public criticism and personal abuse of his colleagues, resulted in a formal complaint by University of Haifa’s dean of humanities, Yossi Ben-Artzi, seeking Pappé’s dismissal. Ben-Artzi emphasized that his complaint was “not a matter of freedom of speech or an attempt to attack Pappé for his anti-Zionist opinions” but rather “a matter of non-collegial, unethical and immoral conduct, lies, badmouthing, and impudence.”

But, according to an official statement by the University of Haifa, despite Pappé’s

transgression of all common ethical standards of academic life …Pappe was never summoned by the disciplinary committee as the committee’s chairperson decided not to pursue the complaint. Moreover, and contrary to Dr. Pappe’s claim, the university made no attempt to expel him.

Pappé does not pretend to objectively search out the truth. He admits that he is driven by ideology rather than facts.  In his Journal of Palestine Studies article, he acknowledged that Teddy Katz was “well aware of the ‘murkiness’ of the picture derived from the memories of participants and survivors so long after traumatic events,” that the student “was not interested in fine details,” or “certainties about exact chronology and names and precise numbers.” Pappé dismissed the need for such rigor when writing a historical thesis.

Nevertheless, the professor managed to mobilize an international community of Israel’s detractors to penalize major academic institutions for pursuing the truth. The AUT decision to boycott was based on the request of a man whose life is devoted to demonizing his homeland and to whom academic rigor is irrelevant.

Any university must balance academic freedom against a professor’s possible violation of basic standards of scholarship. The University of Haifa’s willingness to permit Pappé to continue “teaching” despite his record of promoting blatant misinformation may be a lesson for other universities that indulging such faculty can be far worse than enforcing ethical and academic standards.

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