In December 2011, the Council on Higher Education (CHE) announced an international committee of scholars had identified profound problems within the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University of the Negev (BGU). Its report explicitly concluded: “If these changes are nevertheless not implemented, the majority of the committee believes that, as a last resort, Ben Gurion University should consider closing the Department of Politics and Government.”
Noting that the department faculty is heavily skewed toward neo-Marxist, critical scholarship, the CHE urged bolstering the positivist approach, having identified the need for “broad exposure to perspectives and alternatives” and having mandated “that the Department makes an effort [to ensure] that the program is perceived as balanced by the community concerned.”BGU-President Rivka Carmi promised to address these issues—including the need to hire faculty dealing with quantitative methods and other core political science disciplines—but, instead, during the past year, two faculty who have unambiguously espoused neo-Marxist, critical scholarship were hired. Also, ignoring the admonition that instructors “see to it that their own opinions are expressed as personal views,” these individuals are avowed activists.
This is why, in September 2012, a CHE-subcommittee concluded the Department had not implemented these recommendations and, thus, that the Department would not be able to enroll new students in the 2013-14 academic year. This prompted Professor Carmi to initiate a firestorm of protest in the Israeli academic community by circulating a letter that falsely claimed BGU’s “improvements met the Review Committee’s recommendations.”
These misrepresentations have been enhanced by radical scholars at BGU and then rubber-stamped by their liberal supporters, producing an aggressive international campaign to discredit the CHE by claiming an unprecedented encroachment on “academic freedom.”During the past fortnight, they have garnered support for their claim of “McCarthyism” from both individual scholars and professional associations.
- Israeli Africanists: “This recommendation stands in stark contrast to the decisions of the professional committee, which came to the conclusion that the department took appropriate steps towards making necessary changes following the report of the international assessment committee commissioned by the CHE.”
- The Israeli Political Science Association: “The recommendation is based on groundless approaches to what constitutes ‘scientific approaches’ within political science.”
- The European Association of Israel Studies: “We...regard the attempt to close down the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University as an attack on academic freedom which manifests an inability to tolerate a different point of view.”
- MESA: “The recommendation has little to do with academic matters....As such, this represents a gross and abusive infringement upon academic freedom and independence.”
- The Association for Israel Studies: “The AIS wholeheartedly opposes any sanctions on the Department and considers the attempts to close it as both unconstitutional and in complete contradiction to basic principles of academic freedom. Whatever our political opinions, whether we are ‘left’ or ‘right,’ whether our methodologies are quantitative or qualitative, we consider these attempts to restrict or close the Department to be attacks on Israeli democracy and its core principles of freedom of expression and academic freedom.”
- The Association of American Geographers: “...[T]he appearance of such an action would have detrimental consequences...for the ties between Israeli academia and other parts of the world.”
- Petition: PROTECT ACADEMIC FREEDOM “We, faculty members of academic institutions worldwide, express our deepest concern....This small department at Ben Gurion University has become a target of ultra right-wing groups such as “Im Tirtzu,”due to the personal political opinions of some of the department’s members....Nevertheless, the department has gone to great lengths to meet the Committee’s requirements. Following the changes made by the department, the Committee expressed its satisfaction at the changes and even proposed that, in light of these changes, the subject of closing down the department’s registration should be removed from the agenda.”
- Petition: “We, faculty members in academic institutions in Israel and around the world, express our profound concern over the demand of the Sub-Committee for Teaching Evaluation of the Israeli Council for Higher Education to stop registration of new students in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University beginning in the fall of 2014. Such an action would be tantamount to closing the Department. This is an unacceptable assault on academic freedom in our universities.”
This eruption threatens to erode Israel’s standing on Western campuses, already weakened by decades of pro-Palestinian advocacy. They know the potential damage transcends “image,”because Israel is vulnerable to the imposition of sanctions by international scholarly associations, should the CHE endorse this committee-report on October 23rd.
These developments represent a culmination of the effort of radical scholars to misrepresent the CHE’s evaluation process and to portray Israel as a land of right-wing extremism. IAM’s Academic Freedoms in Israel in Comparative Perspectives, however, demonstrated that Israeli academics enjoy more institutional and individual freedom than do those in other countries; conversely, the CHE appearsto harbor less authority than do its foreign equivalents. For instance, it would be inconceivable for the president of an American public university to appeal to the international community to resist a negative report issued by an accrediting entity. Presidents of public (state) universities in the United States are accountable to boards of regents appointed by state governors and closely supervised by state legislatures that represent taxpayers. In turn, governors and the state legislators look toward accrediting associations (the equivalent of the CHE that evaluate both private and state colleges) to ensure tax dollars are spent well.
The campaign against the CHE admixes deliberate misrepresentations and genuine lack of understanding of how the complex issue of academic freedom plays out in Israel and other countries; that is why it is so virulent and the collateral damage abroad so great.
A Conversation with Neve Gordon and Ian Lustick
Tuesday, October 9th, 7:00pm - Irvine Auditorium, Cafe 58
The Israeli Council of Higher Education recently threatened to close down the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University (BGU). Professor Neve Gordon, a faculty member in the department, will speak with Penn Professor Ian Lustick about the assault on academic freedom in Israel and its link to ongoing campaigns against human rights organizations, the media, and the supreme court.
Neve Gordon, on faculty at BGU, is currently a member of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. He has been a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and the Watson Institute at Brown University. Gordon is the author of Israel's Occupation and frequently writes for such outlets as The Guardian, The Nation, LA Times, The London Review of Books, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Al-Jazeera
Ian Lustick is the Bess W. Heyman Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He publishes widely about the Middle East and comparative politics for both scholarly and general interest publications, with a focus on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Penn for Palestine.