On May 19, 2002, Ilan Pappé received word that an order for him to stand trial at Haifa University, where he teaches political science, had been rescinded. The prosecution, represented by Haifa’s dean of humanities, had demanded Pappé’s expulsion from the university due to positions he has taken on the controversial M.A. thesis of Teddy Katz. Katz claimed to have discovered evidence that Israeli soldiers massacred Palestinian villagers at Tantura in May 1948. He was sued for libel by veterans of the brigade in question, and never allowed to defend his thesis on its merits at the university, which disqualified him in 2000. In Pappé’s view, his vigorous defense of Katz at the time was not the real reason for the university’s belated case against him.
“I think there are three reasons for the timing,” Pappé said in an interview May 18. “One is my signing of a petition endorsing the decision of European academics to boycott Israeli academic institutes. The second is a pending article of mine in Hebrew on the Katz affair, in which I repeat my critique of the university’s conduct. The third is my known intention to give a course on the nakba.”
“It also has to do with the general atmosphere…[which] has been well-manipulated by the political elite to drive into the center of the public stage discourse and ideologies that used to be regarded as belonging to the extreme right,” Pappé continued. “Anyone who even slightly criticizes the national unity government’s policies is immediately boycotted and silenced. And this is the time to settle old accounts with the ‘new historians,’ or what is left of them after the retraction of Benny Morris.” The term “new historians” refers to a small group of Israeli researchers whose archival digging has unearthed evidence challenging the purity of Israeli arms in the 1948 war — a crucial foundational myth of the state — and supporting the Palestinian narrative that Palestinian refugees were forcibly expelled from their homes. Morris, never the most radical of these historians, has recently said that he was wrong to support negotiations with the Palestinians in the 1990s, and that refugees have no right of return. Along with other scholars who examined fractures of race, class and religiosity in contemporary Israeli society, the “new historians” were once regarded as harbingers of “post-Zionism” in Israeli Jewish intellectual life. Times have changed.
For Pappé, “[my case] provides in a way the ultimate proof of how innocent and overly optimistic I was in my assessment of the impact of post-Zionist scholarship on society. The early buds of pluralism and alternative thought have wilted the moment they grew into a significant flower. The Israeli Jewish public was indoctrinated as a militaristic and ethnocentric society for more than 50 years, and academics alone cannot change it. On the contrary, during the heyday of Oslo when peace discourse was bon ton we saw the flourishing of post-Zionism (and not the other way around — post-Zionism did not bring the Oslo accord). The moment the public atmosphere changed most of the post-Zionists recanted, and understood the bon ton was to be conformist.”
Pappé credits the rapid mobilization of Israeli and international academics in his defense with compelling the university to drop its case. But on the larger questions he is less sanguine. “If we succeed in avoiding my expulsion, maybe academia [in Israel] could play a more constructive role, but I am somewhat doubtful about this. The more reasonable scenario is a conformist academia that will continue to provide ‘scientific’ scaffolding for the brutal policies inside and outside the country.”