The Collapse of Academic Freedom in Israel: Tantura, Teddy Katz and Haifa University

From the archive (legacy material)

ZALMAN AMIT | Counterpunch | 11 May 2005

On April 22, the Association of University Teachers in the United Kingdom voted to boycott the University of Haifa in Israel. Supporters of the boycott referred to the university’s treatment of one of its staff, Dr. Ilan Pappe, in the controversy over an MA thesis which had been written by Teddy Katz about events in 1948 in the Palestinian coastal village of Tantura, a few miles south of Haifa.
The boycott decision has led to a media storm in both Israel and the United Kingdom. The debate is ongoing — opponents of the boycott have collected the twenty-five signatures needed to call a special emergency conference to discuss the boycott again; this meeting will be held on May 26.
I should declare, up front, that I have been tangentially involved in the Katz affair: I attended the court proceedings as a member of the public and I have recently finished translating Katz’s thesis into English. However, my interest in the events at Tantura in 1948 goes back much further.
In the summer of 1954, six years after the Israelis conquered the village of Tantura, I spent the summer in Kibbutz Nachsholim, which had been established on the ruins of the village less than one year after its conquest. I was then a counselor in the Youth Movement, Hanoar Ha’oved. In accordance with the custom of those days, by which older teenage members of the movement used to spend the summer months working voluntarily in a kibbutz, my group of grade 11 students had been sent to Nachsholim.
We were warmly welcomed and accommodated in the old Arab houses that dotted the shoreline of what used to be Tantura. Some of the kibbutz members, particularly bachelor males not much older than my youth movement kids, used to spend most of their evenings mingling with us. During one of these get-togethers, a girl from my group turned to one of the kibbutz members and asked about the houses in which we were living. “What are these houses?”, she asked. “Who used to live here and where are these people now?”
A short silence ensued and then one of the older kibbutz members changed the subject by saying: “Lets not talk about this. It is just too complicated”. A warning light was switched on at the back of my head: “Something bad has happened here”. However, I didn’t do anything to inquire further. I went on with my life and actually forgot the whole incident — but the realization that something untoward had happened there lingered on.
More than forty years later, when the Teddy Katz affair began to unfold, I was immediately reminded of the incident in Nachsholim/Tantura in the summer of 1954.
Teddy Katz, a member of Kibbutz Magal and a native of the city of Haifa, initially planned to do his Master’s thesis on the events in Haifa during the 1948 war. His supervisor, Kais Firro (and not Ilan Pappe as many seem to believe), discouraged him from choosing this topic, because of the relative abundance of such material. Instead, he suggested that Teddy should focus on some of the villages south of Haifa and their fate during the 1948 war.
As a result, in 1998, Katz submitted to the University of Haifa an MA thesis that focused on the fate of several Palestinian villages, in particular, Ein Razal, Um el Zeinat and Tantura. The thesis was approved and given a rating of 97%, the highest rating for a thesis that I have ever heard of. In 1999, Teddy Katz was awarded an MA (research) degree from Haifa University.
In collecting data for his thesis, Katz relied heavily on the use of oral testimony as one of his basic methodological approaches. He interviewed over one hundred Israeli and Palestinian individuals who were in these villages or were connected to these villages during the 1948 war.
From the evidence he collected, Katz concluded that, during the conquest of Tantura by the Israeli Jewish forces in late May 1948, a large number of individuals had been murdered, possibly up to 225. Katz estimated that about 20 had been killed during the battle for Tantura and that the rest, both civilians and captured fighters, were killed after the village had surrendered, at a time when they were not armed in any way. (Since many believe that Katz concluded in his thesis that a massacre took place in Tantura, it is important to note that, in fact, the word “massacre” did not appear in the thesis.)
In late January 2000, Teddy Katz was interviewed by Amir Gilat, a journalist from a mass-circulation Israeli newspaper, Ma’ariv, which subsequently published a long article summarizing the findings in Katz’s thesis. The claim that a massacre took place in Tantura appears for the first time in the Ma’ariv article.
A short while after the publication of the article in Ma’ariv, a group of veterans from the “Alexandroni” Brigade, the army unit that had attacked and captured Tantura, sued Katz for libel. The veterans were represented by Giora Erdinast, an attorney who is the son-in-law of one of the veterans and who is reputed to have acted on the veterans’ behalf in a pro bono capacity. Teddy Katz was represented by Avigdor Feldman, a well-known human rights lawyer in Israel.
The court proceedings began in December 2000. The allegations against Katz centered on the claim that the thesis contained misquotations and that there were discrepancies between some of the oral testimony recordings and what was described in the thesis. Between six and nine such discrepancies were discovered. For example, in one of these instances Katz quoted an Alexandroni veteran as having used the word “Nazis” whereas, in fact, he had used the word “Germans”. In another instance, Katz reported that a Palestinian witness “saw” an incident whereas, in fact, he had said that he “heard” the incident. (In fairness to Katz, it should be noted that some of the tapes were barely audible and, in some cases, the speakers used barely decipherable dialect terms from the regional variant of Palestinian Arabic. Considering this, most “discrepancies” seem, in fact, more like reasonable interpretations.)
It is important to note that, about two months prior to the onset of the court proceedings, Katz, who was under severe financial pressure emanating from the expenses of the case, had received a donation of $8000 from Palestinian sources. This amount was given to Katz by Faisal Husseini who was then the Palestinian Authority representative in Jerusalem. Katz needed, at that point, to immediately deposit NIS30,000 before the case could proceed and the need for additional funds had become particularly acute when a fundraiser evening in the progressive Tzavta Club in Tel Aviv failed to raise the amount required.
The fact that Katz received funds from the Palestinians became known only late in 2002, following the seizure of documents during the now infamous police raid and “conquest” of Orient House, the Palestinian Headquarters in East Jerusalem. (The raid was directed by Uzi Landau, the militant, right-wing Likud member who was, then, the Minister of Internal Security.) Ironically, this revelation came to light approximately one month prior to the submission of Katz’s revised thesis, a revision which, as we shall see, was caused by Haifa University’s decision to suspend his degree after the court case.
Now back to the case.
Katz himself was the first and only witness to testify in the trial. At the end of the second day of proceedings, something rather shocking happened: Katz agreed to an out-of-court settlement, signing an “apology” in which he admitted that what had happened in Tantura was not a “massacre” — this word was used in the apology and denying it seems to have been the entire point. The irony is that the real issue, whether civilians and unarmed ex-fighters were killed after the surrender, did not play a role. All that the veterans seem to have wanted was an apology for usage of the word “massacre”, a word which, it should be repeated, never appeared in Katz’s thesis.
The document was signed late at night (around 11:45 PM), at a meeting which involved one of Katz’s non-litigating lawyers, Amatzia Atlas, who also happens to be Katz’s cousin. Katz’s chief attorney, Avigdor Feldman, was not there and was not aware of this development.
According to Katz, he already had second thoughts about what he had done as he traveled away from the meeting in a taxi. These misgivings were conveyed to Atlas right there and then. Apparently, Atlas convinced Katz to “sleep on it” and see how he felt in the morning. Also, according to Katz, a Haifa University lawyer who was present during the signing of the agreement told Katz’s wife (who was also present): “Tell him to sign and just continue his studies for his doctorate”.
It is important to note that, according to Katz, in the period of approximately twelve hours from the signing of the agreement to the resumption of the court session, he spoke to only two other people — one close personal friend and Adam Keller, the spokesperson of Gush Shalom.
At the beginning of the court session next morning, the presiding judge, Drora Pilpel, announced that the case was closed, to the stunned silence of many of those present in the courtroom, who were not aware of the happenings of the night before. She explained that an out-of-court settlement had been signed and that it had been examined and approved by the court.
At that point, attorney Feldman rose and told the judge that Katz would like to make a statement. Permission was given and Katz explained to the court that he had signed the settlement in a moment of weakness which he now deeply regretted. Furthermore, he felt that he wouldn’t be able to live with this decision since it did not represent what he really felt about his work. He pleaded with the court to give him permission to retract his “apology” and continue to defend himself against the libel suit.
The attorney acting for the Alexandroni veterans asked the court to reject Katz’s request and, after several hours of deliberation, Judge Pilpel announced her decision not to allow Katz to back out of the settlement. She made it crystal clear that her decision related only to her conviction that a contract between parties must be respected. She emphasized that her decision did not relate in any way to the content, accuracy or veracity of the libel suit. Katz appealed to the Supreme Court who, in turn, upheld the decision of the judge of the lower court for exactly the same reasons.
As part of the signed settlement, Katz was obliged to publish an “apology” in the press. Katz now refused to do so, since it would not represent his true feelings about the case. The attorney acting for the veterans then published the “apology” himself and proceeded to seize Katz’s car as repayment for the publication cost. To avoid seizure of his car, Katz paid.
A lot has been written about the reasons that caused Katz to “collapse” and sign an “apology” which he obviously did not believe in. In this context, one must note that the pressure of the libel case was seriously deleterious to Katz’s health. He suffered a mild stroke and was altogether in poor mental and emotional health. Several members of his family, including his wife, his children and his cousin, the lawyer Amatzia Atlas, pressured him to settle, since they were actually worried for his life. Following the termination of the court case, I had the opportunity to discuss this issue with Katz’s wife and son. They both confirmed the fact that at that point all they had wanted was to reduce the pressure and protect Teddy’s health.
Following the court case, Haifa University appointed a committee of four to “re-inspect” Katz’s thesis. The deliberations which led to this appointment are not clear. The university has never explained by what procedural rules it was able to re-open consideration of the status of a thesis that had already been approved and awarded a rating of 97%.
The committee reported that it found some major errors. For example, it stated that the thesis “failed at the stage of presenting the raw material for the reader’s judgment, both in terms of its organization according to strict criteria of classification and criticism, and in terms of the apparent instances of disregard for the interviewees’ testimony.” There was a sharp debate, among the members of the committee, as to whether “Katz’s distortions” were politically motivated and deliberate.
It is worth repeating that, as far as I am aware, the university never explained the legal and procedural justification for this development in accordance with a pre-existing rule-book. This is particularly relevant since it is clear that Katz’s thesis was not “re-inspected” as a result of an internal academic complaint, or on the basis of academically-based information presented formally to the faculty by a qualified and authorized academic body, or as a result of a complaint from any person who launched such a complaint as a result of an academic scrutiny of the thesis. Instead, it appears that evaluation of the thesis was re-opened on the basis of some allegation that arose from an aborted legal case and that the action did not follow established and formal rules of academic procedure.
Because of this committee’s report, Katz’s degree was “suspended” (requests were actually made to libraries to remove the thesis from their shelves) and he was offered a chance to revise and resubmit his thesis. Katz accepted the “offer” and significantly revised his thesis both by significantly increasing the number of people interviewed as well as by imposing major changes in the style and structure of the thesis. In order to avoid the possibility of claims of discrepancies between oral testimony and its representation in the thesis, Katz included a large number of verbatim testimonies in the thesis. Naturally, that caused a major expansion of the thesis. (The resultant total length in Hebrew was just under 600 pages and over 800 pages in the English translation). It also made for a somewhat cumbersome and tedious document. Ironically, this very attempt to avoid criticism resulted in new criticisms about the quality of the text and the writing.
Late in 2002, Katz submitted his revised thesis to Haifa University.
In an unprecedented move, Haifa University appointed an anonymous examining committee of five. Despite the supposed anonymity of the committee, the identity of some or all members of the committee soon began to circulate in cyber-space — the source of the leak(s) is not known. The fact that the names of the committee members were freely circulating made it clear that the presumed “secrecy” of the deliberations was destroyed. At the same time, it became clear that some members of the committee were not in a position to claim objectivity and lack of bias.
The assessment of Katz’s revised thesis by the five members of the committee was highly divergent. Two members actually accorded it a very acceptable grade of 85% and 83%. Two others failed it decisively (awarding 40% or so). The fifth committee member gave it a grade of 74%. Haifa University now took another most unusual step — it averaged the marks awarded by the committee members. This dubious statistical procedure resulted in a mark in the mid-70s percentage range, a mark that was just 1% point below the acceptable level for an MA thesis at Haifa University.
On the basis of the results of this highly unusual and dubious process, Haifa University rejected Katz’s thesis and denied him the Research MA degree that should have been conferred on him had the thesis been deemed acceptable. Since Katz had completed all the course and assignment requirements, however, Haifa University had no choice but to award him (reluctantly, I suspect) a “non-research” MA degree.
Finally, it is of some interest that, among several others, two senior writers on the period of the 1948 war have subsequently concluded that Katz’s claim about the events in Tantura is not without merit. Tom Segev concluded his article on the issue by saying that, while Katz may not have been without fault as a historian, the events he reported probably happened. Benny Morris decided that a significant number of Tantura villagers had been killed after the surrender of the place and concluded that they were unarmed or disarmed when killed.
The judgment by Morris is particularly interesting, since he has a methodological objection to the admissibility of oral historical evidence. (When, earlier, he had been asked to come to Katz’s assistance, he refused because Katz had relied on oral testimony.) In an interview in the Jerusalem Report, Morris contended that, while he is not sure whether what happened in Tantura was actually a massacre, he was now convinced that atrocities, rapes and killings were committed by the troops in Tantura.
To my knowledge, despite the fact that several faculty members at Haifa University expressed to me their dismay about the treatment Katz received from their university, the only one to defend Katz publicly was Ilan Pappe.
Zalman Amit grew up in Israel, migrated to Canada and now divides his time between the two countries. A professor emeritus at the Center for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology in Concordia University, Montreal, he asked to be added to the Campus Watch blacklist of academics.