The first I realised something was going on was when I returned to university after being away for a few weeks. Stuck on one of the many university noticeboards – the sort on which everyone competes to have their flyer at the top – was a letter. The letter, if I remember correctly, was to the leadership of the University of Haifa protesting the fact that the national anthem, Hatikvah (The Hope), was not sung (or perhaps going to be sung) at the School of Law graduation. With family soon arriving on flights, I didn’t give it too much of a second thought. Then, today, I saw the story (ht: YachadUK) breaking across the national media. Blogs were alive with activity and Haifa University was embroiled in a rather unpleasant situation.
The issue itself is complex and came to light on the same day as a member of the Makom team wrote a interesting op-ed in the Jerusalem Post about the potential use of the last lines of Hatikvah as a way of repositioning or perhaps reassessing the discourse about who can and cannot be a part of the conversation about Israel and how we cope with ideas and opinions that do not concur with our own. Ironically, where the debate about Hatikvah at Haifa University centres largely on how particularistic it is, in Robbie Gringras’ article, he focuses on the universalism of the penultimate line, “To be a free people in our land.”
Actually, the signs and symbols of the State of Israel are occasionally contested in the public sphere. That, however, is not what bothers me about this latest story – though I have some mixed views about the situation that Haifa University now finds itself in, but perhaps that’s for another time (I should point out that I think the way some have reported the story, implying Hatikvah is banned at the university is ridiculous, especially as the University has now apparently changed its policy and requires it rather than implicitly expects it).
What bothers me is the language with which we choose to speak to and of one another. The accusations in the comments pages of articles quickly shifts to the language which we associate with Nazism (something that I find utterly disgusting). Gradually, I see all aspects of society here and in the Jewish community becoming steadily more polarized or, at least, imagined to be polarized into a situation in which you’re either with us or against us (whoever the ‘us’ is): If you’re in support of the Jewish people having the right to self-determination then you’re a right wing zionist, a racist and supporter of apartheid; if you’re critical of the State of Israel then you’re a liberal anti-zionist and finishing the work that Hitler started. (So I’m in a bit of a quandary because that makes me a zionist, anti-zionist, right wing, left winger.) How can someone like me, who is engaged with the issues but recognises their complexity and the problematic aspects of the debates, ever have the confidence to stand up and say anything? Believe me, I’ve been on the receiving end of someone telling me (well shouting at me) that I’m an enemy of the Jewish people – it’s not pleasant and I’ve got a thick enough skin to shrug it off. But if I felt under attack, I wondered how other people feel – as Robbie Gringras argues, it is miseducative, it puts people off. And, for the record, there are plenty of really vile people who we should actually be worried about.
So where do things go from here? Is there always going to be a steady decline in the public discourse in Israel and the rest of the world in which everyone is identified as either ‘the good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’? How many times do we need to go over the same ground? – There must be countless articles in which people call for holding off on immediately labelling one another in such terms. Yet, I still know that people are reticent to speak out because of fear for their jobs or personal safety, because the culture persists.
I, for one, am seeking a new form of public discourse which looks towards articulating a vision of the future, one filled with real Hope. A future unafraid of recrimination for stating one’s opinions because there is open, healthy, thoughtful and adult debate in which we don’t just fall into the trap of telling one another that we’re enemies. I wonder, what is that vision and how do we begin to articulate it?
P.S. One final request while mulling over what I’ve written: If you’re a significant donor to Haifa University (having stumbled across my blog), please do not stop your funding (as if this story would sway you anyway). Things aren’t always straightforward here in Israel and the university refracts all of that complexity. And there are some brilliant minds working here in research who are worth a lot more than they already get!