Israeli campaigners fear enemy within campus walls

Event on academic freedom identifies ‘one-sided far-leftist agitprop’

May 16, 2013

Debate on academic politics in Israel has been reignited by Stephen Hawking’s decision to boycott a presidential conference after lobbying from Palestinian colleagues.

Meanwhile, a campaigning Israeli organisation has claimed that universities in the country - and the state itself - are being undermined from within by academics with pro-Palestinian viewpoints.

Introducing a round-table event on academic freedom in Tel Aviv on 3 May, Dana Barnett, director of the Israel Academia Monitor (IAM), stated that “neo-Marxist critical scholars” had “expanded control of humanities and social sciences departments” in the country.

Ofira Seliktar, professor of political science at Gratz College in Pennsylvania, argued that Israeli academics enjoyed greater freedom than those in the UK, Germany and the US - but at “a heavy price”, with many “using their classroom as a platform for political indoctrination rather than a ‘marketplace of ideas’”.

Michael Gross, a member of the board of governors at Ben Gurion University, said he believed that poor corporate governance had led to a situation “where elements of the university are now…out of control”, with its department of politics “an anti-pluralistic bastion of one-sided anti-Israel far leftist agitprop”.

Meanwhile a master’s student at Ben Gurion, Rachel Avraham, spoke of her objections to a professor on her course who asserted “that Israel is violating international law” and “is the main impediment for peace”.

But commenting on the event, David Katz, professor of early modern European history at Tel Aviv University, said that IAM was part of “the fringe internet media…read by people who want further confirmation of views they already have”.

He said he did not approve of professors speaking as academics on political issues “unless they are experts”, although he added that “as long as they keep it out of the classroom, they are welcome to take part in political life”.

“Few professors violate that trust, but those who do are harmless, even if they express views more extreme than the ones quoted [by Ms Avraham], which are held by many Israelis,” he said.

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Reader's comments (2)

The author of this article totally omitted the fact that I, Yaacov Bergman, spoke too at the event described, for about 50 minutes. In my talk, I showed that the claim that the Department of Politics at Ben-Gurion University was persecuted for its leftist orientation was baseless, and that the attempt by the Israeli agency responsible for academic quality control to put the department in academic receivership was based on its manifest very poor academic performance that was hidden from the Israeli for 15 years by dishonest means. The following is the translation to English of my article in the Israeli "Haaretz" newspaper published on 23.1.2013 which summarised the said dishonesty. Haaretz Op-Ed   01.23.2013 There Was No Persecution by Yaacov Bergman  (Translation of the original Hebrew text) The Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University was at the focus of a heated public debate in recent months. The Quality Assurance Committee of the Israeli Council for Higher Education (CHE) deemed inadequate the corrective actions taken by the university administration in response to the requirements set forth by the international academic audit committee. Inter alia, the audit committee determined that ever since its inception, the department's curriculum has lacked the core studies in political science. Many blamed the CHE and its chair, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, of acting contrary to the audit committee's recommendations. They also claimed that branding the academic quality of the department as substandard was only a disguise for a political persecution campaign against the faculty of the department, who are known for their loud criticism of the Israeli government policies ("Trial of the CHE," Haaretz editorial, 10/30/12). But during the appeal of the university administration against the decision of the CHE in October 2012, Professor Thomas Risse, the political scientist from Germany who chaired the international audit committee, made it clear that himself and his committee members have supported the decision of the CHE to disallow new students from registering to study at the inadequate department. Risse also listed during the appeal session a series of significant department deficiencies, which still need to be addressed. The affair began in 2001, when Ben-Gurion University administration requested of the CHE to allow the Department of Politics and Government to confer the BA degree upon its students. For that purpose, the CHE commissioned two experts to review the department; one was Professor Zeev Maoz, a leading political scientist, and the other was Professor Avner De-Shalit.  Maoz describes himself as a proud leftist, an attribute that has also been reflected in his op-eds, which should rule out any claims of political bias by him against the department.  Maoz wrote in his report: "No faculty member of the department has done any research in the core of the profession" and, therefore, "its faculty is in no position to provide the required scientific training to undergraduates in a research university." Accordingly, Maoz recommended rejecting the university request. In contrast, the other reviewer, De-Shalit, approved the department's petition; effectively granting the Department an exemption from teaching the core curriculum in political science. In his response to the CHE, then BGU Provost Nachum Finger agreed with the harsh conclusions of the Maoz report, and wrote: "Surely, without the core curriculum it will not be possible to create a basic program for those interested in studying political science." One would have expected that following this, the university would rush to fill the academic void. But this has not transpired. Instead, in 2003, the CHE appointed a committee of three members to re-review the department, ostensibly in order to decide between the two conflicting reports, by Maoz and by De-Shalit. Yet, against all logic and integrity, out of all political scientists that could have been chosen to adjudicate between the two conflicting reports, the CHE picked the biased De-Shalit to head the committee. Indeed, De-Shalit should have refused the appointment, but he has not, and, as expected, recommended the same as he did in his 2001 review. Eight more years elapsed during which the department existed sans the core curriculum in political science, until in 2011, when it was subjected to a routine review by an international audit committee on behalf of the current CHE, whose composition is now completely different from that of the 2003 CHE. The international audit committee found the same academic vacuum that Profesor Maoz unearthed ten years before, and recommended to the university administration — which is ultimately responsible for the department's condition — that if the department does not hurry to fill the curricular void, disciplinary actions will be taken in order to put an end to the fraud perpetuated against the public and students, who were "trained" lacking the necessary academic core curriculum. To add insul to to injury, one of the three members of the 2003 De-Shalit committee, who did not see the need to amend the deficiencies of the substandard department of politics, was Professor Gad Barzilai, currently the dean of the Haifa University Law School. But lo and behold, of all available social scientists, the BGU administration picked the same Barzilai as a sole external supervisor over the corrective actions required by the CHE. In other words, the university administration sold the game a second time; it appointed Barzilai in 2011 to implement corrective actions that himself deemed in 2003 to be unnecessary. The Ben-Gurion University probably assumed that the current CHE will respond similarly to how previous CHEs have, and will again turn a blind eye. To the surprise of the university and of those who became used to the tricks played by former CHEs; the current CHE, which was not aware of the two previous maneuvers concerning the department, found the supervision of Professor Barzilai to be very problematic and — backed by the international audit committee — it rejected the corrective actions supervised by Barzilai as inadequate. The decision of the CHE Sub-Committee for Quality Assurance — after hearing the appeal of the university administration in October 2012 — communicated to the press that "the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University still lacks the fundamental capacities required in the core subjects of theoretical approaches and research methods in political science." In other words, the Department still lacks the core curriculum, and should not continue to exist as an academic department in its current substandard state. The chain of events related herein demonstrates that the accusations leveled against the CHE and its chair, of politically persecuting the department, is baseless. Moreover, the questionable conduct described herein and in many other instances, demonstrates the need in the public interest, for a fundamental structural reform in the Israeli higher education system and in its regulation. Dr. Bergman is involved in reforms of the Israeli higher education system 
The IAM round table was recorded on audio tape. Please copy the link to visit the IAM front page, scroll down and listen to the recording[id]=170&page_type=1&cookie_lang=en

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