The President, the Dean, and the Historiography of 1948 Palestine

The Conference

Three weeks ago, my colleague in the University of Haifa, Dr. Asa’d Gahnim of the department of political science, suggested convening a conference on the historiography of 1948. We agreed to present, in the proposed conference, the recent developments in both Israeli and Palestinian historiography on the 1948 war and the Nakbah (“the catastrophe”). Dr. Ghanim and Salman Natur were asked to introduce the recent critical trends in the Palestinian side (with particular stress on works that deconstruct the role of the traditional leadership and the Arab regimes in the 1948 war). In the second half of the conference, Udi Adiv, Teddy Katz and I would present an updated picture of the historiographical debates on the 1948 war within Israel’s scholarly community. I asked my own division, the International Relations division, to host the meeting. The head of the division, Dr. Michael Gross agreed.

The Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences

The conference was announced in the usual venues, as is common on our campus. Upon learning of the event, Professor Aryeh Ratner, the Dean of Social Sciences, phoned the head of the division and later contacted me. He ordered us — by direct instructions from the Rector and the President of the university — to cancel the conference. He clarified that he would not allow a conference which included Udi Adiv. In the early 1970s, Adiv was accused and found guilty of spying for the Syrians and was jailed for that allegation. After his release, in the early 1980s, he finished a Ph.D. thesis at the University of London, under the supervision of Professor Sami Zubadia, one of the world’s leading scholars on the social history of the Middle East. Adiv’s thesis focused on Zionist historiography — particularly on the historiography of the crucial year of 1948. Adiv was then appointed as a lecturer in the Open University of Israel, a position he holds until today.

I clarified all of these details to Professor Ratner. He told me this is of no interest and that the conference would not take place. He also explained that he would send an official letter claiming that I neglected to correctly complete all the forms required for convening a conference. The same dichotomy between what would be officially written in the letters and the real reasons for the cancellation was explained to Dr. Gross (on the phone) I asked what would happen if I would “properly” refill the forms and was told that this would not change Ratner’s decision, as it was rooted in ideological and not administrative concerns. Dr. Gross also told us that this was not his own policy, but that of the president of Haifa University, Professor Yehuda Hayut.

In the university codex there is indeed references concerning the procedures of conference convention. Like many other procedures, it has never been implemented in the university since its foundation in the early 1970s. After consulting some people who were experts on the codex, I discovered that, if the conference were a departmental symposium, there would not be any need for such a procedure to take place. So the conference was re-defined as a departmental symposium. A room was secured, a date was set, and invitations disseminated.

The President of the University

On May 22, at 2 P.M., the lectures and the audience arrived at hall 715 in the university. The doors were locked. In the corridor stood the university’s chief of security forces and ten of his henchmen, all armed with pistols and walkie-talkies. I was pushed into a side room by the chief and his lieutenant and handed a personal letter from the president, Yehuda Hayut. This was done in front of my wife and my colleagues, who watched helplessly as the macabre scene unfolded. The letter stated that my actions were a “severe breach of the university codex” and hence the room was blocked and the event cancelled. The chief explained to me that I would not be allowed to conduct the event in any other part of the campus. Outside the corridor, my wife heard two other lieutenants of the chief informing the president over their walkie-talkies, “We caught him!” They also said to each other, “High time! They should do the same to all the leftist lectures in the university!”

The Historiography

The participants and I went to a cafeteria. The chief explained to me that if we talk while sitting, but not standing, he would not regard it as a conference. We followed the orders and conducted what to my mind was one of the best critical symposiums on the 1948 historiography.

The University Spokesperson

The local newspaper in Haifa, Kol Bo, reported the event under the headline “Silencing the Voices.” The university spokesperson responded that the conference was “not up to academic standards of Haifa university.” (Indeed it was not — it surpassed them.)

Two reports

In the internal network of the university, there were only two references to the event, one by Dr. Yuval Yunai from the Department of Sociology, who wrote:

“It’s a shame that the university management banned an event from taking place. The Department of International Relations wanted to discuss the historiography of 1948, but my friend and colleague, the Dean of my faculty, decided to use a doubtful prerogative and to ban the participation of Dr. Udi Adiv, a sociologist who wrote on the 1948 war, because of the sins he committed many years ago and for which he paid abundantly through many years of incarceration. Many people didn’t like the composition of that event and its apparent challenge to the decision about Teddy Katz’s MA thesis (Katz himself was supposed to talk, too). Such objection is legitimate, but preventing the event by an instruction from above is against the academic spirit and freedom, even if Deans have this authority (which is also legally questionable). In any case, it’s against the necessity to compromise and to heal the wounds of conflicts and hostilities. While the circle of violence runs amok around us, can’t we, here, in our campus with its unique composition, show the citizens of Israel another way of living together, not side by side, but really together?”

(Yuval spoke on his own behalf and did not necessarily reflect the feelings of all Forum Smol members.)

Professor Micha Leshem from the Department of Psychology wrote:

“Can anyone explain why on earth the University found fit to ban a seminar of faculty and students and invited speakers? I understand the doors of the meeting room were locked, and security personnel on hand in great numbers to accompany the participants away. Such an action is inexcusable in a university, and surely requires a bold and convincing explanation from our university authorities. I fear that the good name of our university will again be questioned by our colleagues and the media — might it not have been wiser to let the meeting take place and its organizers take responsibility for its consequences, if any? How parochial can the University of Haifa be? I suppose the next step will be for the seminar to take place in one of our less prejudicial and more academically orientated sister institutions. Either way we are left with mud on our faces.”


1. This is not an isolated event. It is part of a daily reality on our campus that reflects and represents the overall demise of basic civic and human rights in Israel. The shootings of journalists and the assassinations of human rights activists in the West Bank on the one hand, and the reign of terror and intimidation in the campus on the other, are part and parcel of the same phenomenon.

2. This episode illustrates forcefully why the boycott of Israeli academia abroad is justified, not just as part of the overall pressure on the Jewish state to end its brutal occupation, but also as a warning to the scholarly community in Israel that its protracted moral cowardice comes with a price tag. As long as Israeli academia continues to exercise a reign of intimidation and tyranny on its own campuses, and is silent about the destruction of academic life in the occupied territories, it cannot be part of the enlightened and progressive world to which it wants so eagerly to belong.

3. My colleagues who still find it difficult to support or show solidarity, for whatever reasons, fail to learn the historical lessons of the past. Today it is me, tomorrow it is them. Many of them come from families who experienced the same incremental process of silencing in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Spain, and the military regimes of Latin America. They still live in self-denial, believing it will never happen to them.

As in the past, I ask you to express your indignation and protest and react in any way you deem appropriate, not for my sake, but for the sake of all those who are victimized by the present trends and ideologies in the state of Israel: the Palestinians under occupation, the Palestinian minority within the country, and the few dissenting voices inside Jewish society. Such voices, at the end of the day, will be a valuable contribution to peace and reconciliation in the Middle East.

Ilan Pappe