Academic freedom now under fire from Israeli campaigners

Criticism of universities has provoked a sharp response, reports Matthew Reisz

August 26, 2010

Tension has been ratcheted up in the debate about the threat to academic freedom in Israel after two recent developments escalated concern.

The first was a letter sent by the campaigning organisation, Im Tirtzu, to the president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Rivka Carmi, calling for her "to put an end to the anti-Zionist tilt" among lecturers in its politics and government department.

Should she fail to do so, the group said it would try to dissuade students from studying in the department and donors from giving money to the university.

The second is a similar initiative from the Institute for Zionist Strategies, which targeted sociology departments within Israeli universities for their alleged teaching of "post-Zionism" and "anti-State theories".

It is not the first time that these organisations - as well as others such as Isracampus and NGO Monitor - have been critical of the political make-up of the Israeli academy. But the nature and timing of their latest interventions have produced a far stronger response than before.

In a joint statement, university leaders said that "no Israeli university has to prove its staff's love of their homeland to any organisation, and certainly not to a political one that is trying to present a tendentious, manipulative document as 'research' to advance its own public relations".

One of those in the firing line - who has even received death threats - is British-born David Newman, dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion.

"I have long argued that the attacks on the Israeli academy did not emerge from a few disaffected students at the grass roots but were part of a policy carefully coordinated from outside Israel," said Professor Newman.

Reports now suggest that some of the funding for the monitoring organisations comes from right-wing American Jews and fundamentalist Christians with their own agendas for the Middle East.

"I wish that the leaders of our universities had defended academic freedom earlier, but some weren't willing to stick up for a few left-wingers," added Professor Newman. "They have responded much more forcefully to the latest Im Tirtzu initiative because it crosses certain lines and poses a direct threat to their funding."

Though he admits that social science departments in Israel, as elsewhere in the world, tend to be dominated by people who are left of centre, Professor Newman strongly disputes the other claims that have been made.

It is possible to find extreme left-wingers and a few academics who call for an international boycott of Israeli universities - something Professor Newman is opposed to and spends a lot of time combating within British universities.

But one can also find people at the opposite end of the political spectrum, including some who are supporters of policies such as the "transfer" of the whole Arab population - and many who work on topics that are quite unrelated to Israel and Zionism.

"I have sat in on hundreds of selection committees in Israel," said Professor Newman. "Standards are very tough, and decisions are always made on the basis of people's research, academic background, what and where they publish, letters of recommendation from people who don't know them personally. I don't recall a single case where the political preferences of a candidate came up."

Suggestions that nine out of the 11 permanent faculty in Ben-Gurion's politics and government department were involved in "radical left-wing" political activity are also far off the mark. The department taught air force cadets, a spokesman pointed out, who would hardly be likely to come and hear professors "preaching anti-Zionism".

Professor Newman concurred: "Our universities are simply not full of people sitting around thinking 'How can we create an anti-state mood this week?'"

What is true, however, is that seven out of the 10 faculty members are Jews who have immigrated from the West - most no doubt motivated, as in Professor Newman's own case, by a commitment to living in Israel, which he said made the accusation of "anti-Zionism" very strange.

Nonetheless, he stressed, "my Zionist credentials are not the issue. What is at stake is academic freedom, growing McCarthyism and attempts to silence voices some people don't like."

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