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Princeton and the judicial coup attempt in Israel

Jerusalem - for mintzker piece

“Jerusalem Skyline” by Dan / CC BY-SA 2.0

Israel is undergoing a judicial coup these days. Similar to recent developments in Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, the coup aims to subject Israel’s Supreme Court to the executive branch, change the way judges are appointed, and prevent any meaningful review of government actions or Knesset (Israel’s parliament) laws. Leading the coup is the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. Headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently standing trial for fraud and accepting bribes, the current Israeli government includes ministers who call openly for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs, refuse to condemn pogrom-like attacks on innocent civilians by Jewish settlers, and express racist and homophobic opinions proudly and on a regular basis. Funding this shocking attempt to consolidate power is, in one case, the Tikvah Fund, a wealthy and far-reaching group that also supports research and teaching at Princeton. Based on these actions, Princeton should cut its ties with the organization. 

Describing what is happening in Israel at the moment as a coup attempt might sound extreme or hyperbolic. Alas, it is not. Some of the most important scholars at our world-renowned university have described it in these terms. In a recent event on campus, sociologist and legal scholar professor Kim Lane Scheppele enumerated the many parallels between the coup attempt in Israel and recent autocratic developments in Poland and especially Hungary; professor Jan-Werner Müller from our politics department called last month for the U.S. government to stop sitting idly by while Israel is turning into an autocracy; and Daniel Kahneman, professor of psychology and public affairs, emeritus, and a Nobel Prize laureate, has recently described the situation in Israel as “the end of democracy.” 

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One of the main instigators of the ongoing judicial coup in Israel is an organization called the Kohelet Policy Forum. This organization has ties to many prominent figures in the coup attempt, including Religious Zionist Knesset member Simcha Rotman. The Kohelet Forum was and continues to be funded by the Tikvah Fund which has also been running, among many other things, the Tikvah Project on Jewish Thought (which ended in 2014) and the Lobel Teachers Colloquium (starting now), both here at Princeton. Recently I was also astonished to find out that the dean of the Tikvah Fund, Ronen Shoval, is spending the academic year at Princeton as a lecturer in politics. Shoval is the founder of Im Tirtzu, an ultranationalist group that scholars have characterized as having a close resemblance to fascism. As a scholar of German history, I share their view. Shoval says he departed the group in 2013, but as reported by the New York Times, in 2015 after his departure he posted their messaging to his social media. Let there be no mistake about it: I have nothing but admiration for the academic work done by the regular faculty and many of the visitors at Princeton, and I’m a strong proponent of free speech. At the same time, it is incumbent upon anyone who enjoys funding from the Tikvah Fund to be informed about its involvement in the coup attempt in Israel and indeed to stop taking money from it. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), anyone who shows affinity to fascist views shouldn’t be welcome at Princeton.

As I write these lines, hundreds of thousands of Israelis take to the streets, demanding an immediate and complete stop to the judicial coup in their country. Just this past week, demonstrations in New York also singled out the Tikvah Fund as an especially pernicious influence on the deteriorating state of Israeli democracy. Members of the Princeton community should draw inspiration from such activities. I urge all of us who care about the situation in Israel/Palestine to inform ourselves about the coup attempt, its causes, and implications; to find out more about how the coup attempt is funded and by whom; to express solidarity with those who fight for democracy, liberty, and human rights both in Israel/Palestine and around the world; and to stop accepting money from organizations that work actively to undermine liberal democracy. 

Yair Mintzker is a Behrman Professor in the Humanities Council and a professor of history. He can be reached at mintzker@princeton.edu.

Editor's Note: This piece has been updated to clarify the timing of Shoval's involvement with Im Tirtzu and to remove a reference to "black lists" published by the group in 2019. The piece has also been updated to clarify that experts have characterized Im Tirtzu as fascist, rather than Shoval personally.

Correction: A previous version of this piece referred to the Tikvah Project in Jewish Thought as a current program; it in fact ended it 2014. 

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