David Newman: Academics and the public discourse

Many argue that academics should remain solely as the creators of knowledge and not take part in political debates.

The International Geographical Union is holding its biannual regional conference in Tel Aviv this week. A bit like the World Cup, the international venues for these major academic and scientific events are chosen years in advance, and it takes the local associations years of hard work and organization to put the meetings in place. Different countries and regions lobby to have the event take place in their own backyards, drawing on the expertise and international recognition of scholars in the field to put forward their claim.

In the case of Israel, the proponents also had to deal with those who did not want to come here, for a mixture of security and political reasons. There were groups who attempted to boycott the event and the pre-conference workshops and tried to persuade their colleagues not to attend. But with few exceptions, they were unsuccessful and, as a result, hundreds of geographers, planners and environmentalists are gathering in Tel Aviv this week for their conference, workshops and field trips.

Ask a child at school which are his/her most boring subjects and, invariably, they will choose geography, history and archeology. And yet, in countries such as Israel, where the national conflict and the competing claims to territory, land ownership and sovereignty are central to the daily discourse, there is nothing more relevant to political life than these three disciplines.

Geography is about who controls land, how settlements are planned and constructed and where and how are the state borders demarcated and delimited.

History is about the study of the competing and alternative narratives and claims to sovereignty, each using its own – often exclusive – histories and texts to strengthen its political claims. Archeology is often about the respective desires to prove that “my” group was here first, that “we” have priority in our claims to the land and that the discovered artifacts or bones at dig sites are part of ancient Jewish or Palestinian tradition (when in most cases they are neither).

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