SFL, Partisanship, and Candor: The Case of the Hertog Foundation

Students for Liberty has a new blog post up advertising Economic Liberty Seminars in NYC and Jerusalem, “sponsored by the Hertog Foundation, an educational philanthrophy in New York.” Three anomalies should stand out about this post.

The first is that unlike most posts on SFL’s blog, it’s unsigned. The author is listed as “Guest Author,” with no further identifying information.

The second is the sheer vagueness of the subject matter to be discussed at the seminars. The reader is told that the seminars will explore “fundamental questions of capitalism and democracy,” and “the relationship of political and economic liberty.” One obvious application of these topics to the Israeli context would be a discussion of the justifiability of Israel’s occupation and settlement of the West Bank (or for that matter, its blockade of Gaza). But there is no mention whatsoever of those obvious topics. In fact, reading the advertisement, and clicking back through material on the Tikvah Center and Hertog Foundation, one is led to wonder whether the organizers of the seminar believe that Palestinian Arabs exist, and if so, whether their situation matters enough to be named and discussed in any explicit way.

This is a point worth bearing in mind, incidentally, the next time some defender of Israel gets in your face about Israel’s commitment to the equal rights of its Arab and Jewish citizens or denizens. I don’t doubt that many Israelis have some such commitment. The interesting question is whether Israel’s American defenders–and in particular, its supposedly free market defenders–have the relevant commitment. I doubt it, and if you wonder why, I suggest looking through the websites of the Hertog Foundation and Tikvah Center with the following question in mind: is the intellectual agenda expressed by these organizations one that shows active engagement with the need to come to terms with Israel’s Palestinian Arabs, or is it one that demonstrates a desperate desire to ignore their existence?

A third anomaly, related to the second: If you look at the personnel and activities of the Hertog Foundation and Tikvah Center, and you’re at all familiar with how the polemical end of the Arab/Israeli dispute works, you’ll probably infer that the Foundation and Center are academic branches of what Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer have described as “the Israel lobby.” But if you look for any candid, explicit acknowledgement of this obvious fact, you will not find it. (Nor will you find any clear indication of how exactly the two organizations are funded, despite the sheer abundance of funding on offer in this, a time of “retrenchment” in post-financial crisis academia.)

What you will find instead is a slick, skillful, disingenuous exercise in plausible deniability. Every activity sponsored by the Foundation and engaged in by the Center has the same political orientation. Virtually every person associated with them is an active partisan on one side of the debate. Few if any Arabs are involved in the organizations’ activities  (I didn’t see a single one; I’m just hedging in case I missed any), including its Fellows Program. But if you straightforwardly ask the question, “So are these organizations just the academic expression of a lobbying enterprise for a foreign government?” not only will you not find the answer, but you’ll likely be accused of anti-Semitism. And if you wonder why NYU houses such an outfit, people will accuse you of the conspiratorial belief that “Jews control academia,” and sarcastically start invoking the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Before anyone does that, I should hasten to add that the problem here is hardly confined to pro-Israel organizations in American universities.  It extends to supposedly academic centers for the study of Islamic civilization funded by Saudi money, and essentially partisan outfits within universities whose purpose is advocacy for various Third World causes under outward cover of academic neutrality or multiculturalism. It’s just that those things don’t typically show up at SFL.

One wonders why not. After all, if pro-Israeli advocacy is an expression of free-market capitalism, why not pro-Egyptian, pro-Tunisian, pro-Qatari, or pro-Islamic? Better yet, why not advertise pro-Arab and pro-Islamic organizations that flaunt their pro-Arab and pro-Islamic credentials, that pretend that there are no non-Arab or non-Muslim minorities in Arab/Muslim countries, and that interpret “freedom” and “capitalism” to mean “freedom for Arabs” or “capitalism for Muslims?” Finally, why not advertise organizations discreetly geared to an Arab/Muslim membership, but that cannot admit out loud that that is their self-conception?

A couple of years ago, I tried to call the bluff of such an organization–the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies–by sending a painstakingly constructed application for their annual Israel program. I didn’t get in, but I made sure to be interviewed, and spoke my mind in the interview. (As I said, I didn’t get in.) That’s my suggestion here, as it is for dealing with any such partisan organization with academic pretensions, be it pro-Israeli, pro-Muslim, pro-Arab, pro-Pakistani, left-wing social justice oriented, libertarian, or Objectivist. Take their rhetoric literally and at face value and insist that they live up to it. The results will be instructive, but don’t expect them to be pleasant.

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