We write this to alert faculty, students, and the administration of the appointment of Ronen Shoval as Research Scholar and Lecturer in Politics, and to invite us to reflect on who we want to appoint to teach our students.
As described by the media, politicians and civil rights groups, and numerous scholars, Shoval is the founder of an ultranationalist Israeli group that has waged campaigns of intimidation and harassment against prominent human rights organizations, academic departments, authors, artists, and scholars across Israel for years. Shoval says he departed the group in 2013. Yet, before his departure, the organization was described by experts testifying in an Israeli court as having aspects in common with fascism. And even after his purported departure, when the organization was accused of “Israeli McCarthyism,” Shoval, referring to McCarthy, responded that, “The historical details reveal that he was mostly correct in most cases.”
Stunningly, Shoval is now teaching a Freshman Seminar at Princeton! Yes, this anti-democratic, anti-academic freedom “scholar,” has been charged with welcoming our first-years into a life of academic free-thinking.
To be clear, the issue here is not about freedom of speech. If someone on campus would like to hear McCarthyites or founders of organizations labeled fascist speak, by all means, invite them to speak. Granting University Lecturer status, however, is a whole other matter. Lecturers at Princeton not only have power over students, but access to a podium, resources, and infrastructure. When used by bad actors, these privileges can easily facilitate the development of anti-democratic playbooks, maliciously aimed at attacking independent thinkers and academic freedom. Princeton should always support a wide variety of views, but not a variety of scare tactics or bullying techniques.
Some background: In 2010, Im Tirtzu, the ultra-nationalist group of which Shoval was the founder and long-time chairman, campaigned against academics who taught courses about the Palestinian narrative of 1948. Shoval led the campaign to shut down the political science department at Ben Gurion University. It is bewildering to us that someone who fought to close one respectable political science department should be generously hosted by another.
Im Tirtzu has also allegedly used private documents providing information on human rights organizations obtained from private investigators, and Shoval in 2013 acknowledged in a legal testimony that the group also had investigators spy on lawyers representing those groups. While Shoval was chairman, Im Tirtzu sued entities that called the organization fascist for defamation. Expert witness, historian, and recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize, Professor of Hebrew University of Jerusalem Zeev Sternhell, argued that the group displayed the traits of early-stage fascist movements; and religious scholar Tomer Persico testified that Ronen Shoval admitted he was influenced by thinkers whose teachings served as a basis for fascist ideology.
After Shoval’s departure, Im Tirtzu produced an appalling video in 2015, which founder and former-chairman Shoval posted to his Facebook page, labeling the leaders of Israel’s most prominent human rights organizations “foreign agents,” and equating their work with support for terrorism. The targeted human-rights leaders included the director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel; the outreach director for Breaking the Silence; a lawyer for the Center for the Defense of the Individual; and the executive director of B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. The video — widely accused of incitement by people like Isaac Herzog, now president of Israel, and by organizations like ARZA, the Zionist wing of the Reform Movement (the largest Jewish religious stream in North America) — opens with the staged dramatization of a knife attack by a Palestinian man and goes on to allege that such violence is encouraged by the four Israeli rights activists. The video not only names the activists but also shows their photos. Not surprisingly, these human rights activists reportedly received death threats on social media after the clip was released.
With his appointment as Scholar and Lecturer, Ronen Shoval is now free to use his University affiliation to further advance his hateful agenda. (He now signs his email, “Associate Research Scholar & Lecturer in Politics, James Madison Program in American Ideals & Institutions, Department of Politics, Princeton University.”) Ronen Shoval was invited by the James Madison Program to be a Lecturer in Politics and to teach first-years at Princeton. If the Executive Committee of the Madison Program was unaware of Shoval’s “methods,” we urge them to revise their procedures, and if they were aware, we urge them to rethink how they evaluate the CVs and attitudes of those they invite as lecturers.
As faculty, we are embarrassed. We apologize to our first-years and to the rest of the University community. We call on the University and its departments to reflect on who exactly we want to bring to teach our students. Our objectives in writing this column are threefold: 1) inform our community of this lamentable situation, 2) call on Princeton University’s departments and programs to revisit their procedures for inviting visitors to teach on campus (needless to say, all the material reviewed here was easily accessible, just a few clicks away, to the hiring committees), and 3) support our colleagues, the judiciary, and democratic institutions in Israel in their current fight for democracy, with an aspiration towards a truly democratic state for Israelis and Palestinians.
Eldar Shafir is a professor in behavioral science and public policy at Princeton University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Uri Hasson is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University. He can be reached at email@example.com.