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Ben-Gurion University
Im Tirtzu as Rivka Carmi's Savior: The Real Story behind the Department of Politics and Government at BGU
Editorial Note:

Professor Rivka Carmi (president of Ben Gurion University) is a very lucky lady; she can blame the problems at her university on Im Tirtzu, described as a corporate reincarnation of Senator Joe McCarthy.  Indeed, Im Tirzu has become the favorite bogeyman of radical scholars and their liberal supporters in the academy.  

All this smoke and fury obscures the real problems with the Department of Politics and Government at her university, which actually predates her tenure as president.  While radical faculty have attracted public attention by comparing Israel to an apartheid state and/or to Nazi Germany and repeated calls for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), the troubled academic record of the Department has been less known. 

In July 1997, it was approved by the CHE as a dual-minors program; in 2001, the Department sought accreditation for its BA program.     The CHE appointed Zeev Maoz and Avner de-Shalit, professors at Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University respectively, to evaluate the Department.    In January 2, 2002 Maoz submitted a scathing report, writing that there was a “shocking” lack of core political science classes and that faculty members specialized in topics that were marginal to the discipline.   As a result, a large number of them taught courses that had little to do with their academic training and research.  Among the faculty listed was David Newman, a political geographer who taught a class on electoral system, Rina Poznansky, a historian by training, who offered a class on political parties and Dani Filc (at the time a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Tel Aviv University and a former MD) who instructed a course in Israeli government.   Maoz was especially concerned with the absence of courses in methodology and quantitative methods; he noted that the sole instructor (a doctoral candidate) had no background in the field.   Since virtually all senior members did not research in core political science subjects, Maoz asserted that it would be hard for the Department to provide qualified instructors for core courses.   In his conclusion, he urged the CHE to reject the request for accreditation.  

But de-Shalit felt that the Department  should not be denied accreditation.  Given the split decision, Ben Gurion University was notified that changes were needed in order to receive formal recognition.  The then rector, Professor Noah Finger, wrote to the CHE acknowledging that the absence of the core courses was an impediment and promised to correct the problem.   In November 2003, the CHE appointed de Shalit, Gad Barzilai from the Department of Political Science at Tel Aviv University and Ella Belfer, a historian from Bar Ilan University, to consider anew the accreditation request.   Though Finger’s promise to institute a core political science curriculum was not followed up, the new committee was highly positive.   In a March 2004 report, the committee praised the Department for offering a “unique program” – a reference to a course in applied political training (hitmachut politit).    A co-operative program, the hitmachut students were expected to work for NGOs and participate in workshops and field trips organized by faculty; the report recommended to make the course mandatory.   The committee had also formed a favorable opinion of the faculty, praising the “special relations” with students and the collegial atmosphere in the Department.   Ignoring Maoz’s concerns, the report recommended adding a slot in political philosophy and Israeli government.   Acting upon its recommendation, the CHE agreed on a temporary accreditation; by 2009, fully-accredited, the Department was allowed to offer an MA program.   “The Report of the Committee in Charge of Evaluating the Accreditation Request of the Department of Politics and Government at BGU University“ - obtained through Freedom Information Act by Dr. Yaacov Bergman.

By giving its blessing to a “unique program” as part of a ”pluralistic  approach to political science,” the de-Shalit committee accepted the Department’s right to offer a political science program closely modeled on Antioch College in Ohio, a small liberal arts school known for embracing radical causes.   Rather than standard political science education, the College proffered courses geared toward political activism, which students then used in a co-operative program for what was termed “progressive political activism.”   Had de-Shalit and his colleagues bothered to review the co-operative program in the Department,  they would have learned that the field work – reflecting the activist makeup of the faculty - was heavily skewed toward left wing activism.  Further empowered by the recommendation, the Department expanded the range of its workshop to include rights of the Negev Bedouins, “exploited workers,” illegal immigrants and Palestinians.  An English - language graduate program for international students featured trips to Hebron where students met with representatives of Breaking the Silence, an NGO monitoring the IDF, Land Day activities in the West Bank and the Separation Barrier, among others.  According to complaints from some participants, there was no effort to balance the “Palestinian narrative,” making the program an ideal took for educating anti-Israel activists.    But Dahlia Scheindlin, an adjunct faculty and a high profile pro-Palestinian activist, stated that following the Antioch model should be considered a source of pride for the Department.    

That the CHE allowed a public university to run a program suitable for a small private college was, as noted, clearly at odds with academic practices of Germany, Great Britain and public universities in the United States.   Though the activist faculty attracted public attention, there was no scrutiny of the Department’s offerings until 2008, when the CHE ordered a routine evaluation of political science departments.    Thomas Risse, a professor at the Free University of Berlin, was asked to chair the five- member International Committee for Evaluation of Political Science and International Relations Programs.   In 2011 the Risse Committee (RC)  issued a report  that echoed the misgivings of Maoz;  it identified serious problems with the weak political science core and a virtual absence of quantitative method training.   The RC noted the imbalance of views in classroom curricula which were heavily weighted toward a critical perspective.  This was hardly surprisingly since the Department practiced hiring and promoting instructors based on paradigmatic similarity or previous political connection.  The RC found that, as result, there was a paucity of mainstream political science approaches, a “rather eclectic set of courses that…lack a coherent focus,” and a tenure-track faculty that had no background in political science. 

The RC determined that the excessive “community activism” of the faculty was detrimental to the idea of a classroom as a marketplace of ideas.  It recommended that “political science instructors should see to it that their own opinions are expressed as personal views, so that students can take critical perspectives and so that there is broad exposure to alternative perspectives, in order to widen and deepen their own understanding.”  In yet another concern, the RC urged to improve the research and publication of faculty, noting that most had not published in mainstream presses and journals.  It recommended “spelling out more clearly individual performance for tenure and promotion criteria, in line with MALAG [CHE] criteria.” 

 In its concluding section, the RC report counseled the Department of the need to practice “common standards of scholarly achievement and excellence are emphasized in the process of hiring and promotion.” In an unprecedented move, it advised that “if these changes are not implemented, the majority of the Committee believes that, as a last resort, Ben Gurion University should consider closing the Department of Political Science and Government.”   Common standards of scholarly achievement and excellence are emphasized in the process of hiring and promotion.” In an unprecedented move, it advised that “if these changes are not implemented, the majority of the Committee believes that, as a last resort, Ben Gurion University should consider closing the Department of Political Science and Government.”  

Yaacov Bergman was one of the few to welcome the CHE’s decision to undertake a new evaluation of the Department.   He was joined by Maoz who revealed in Haaretz his 2002 negative evaluation of the Department.   To preempt criticism, Maoz proclaimed himself to be a leftist in good standing and assured readers that his concerns were not political but academic.  But such assurances did not quell the protest of radical scholars and their liberal supporters in the academy who accused the CHE of a political witch hunt. Carmi went so far as to appeal to the international community of scholars to intervene in the name of academic freedom. 

Using Freedom of Information Act material, Bergman was able to prove that the process of accreditation was tainted by ethical lapses and deception on a number of counts. First, against evidence to the contrary, de-Shalit denied receiving the Maoz report when appointed to head the 2003 committee.  Second,  Barzilai who served on the 2003 committee that did not see the need for a core curriculum, was picked by BGU to evaluate the changes ordered by the RC.  In spite of the fact that the Department hired a prominent political activist and leading practitioners of critical theory- a group that was, according to the RC over presented- Barzilai determined that the changes were in compliance with the report.  Third, according to rector Zvi Hacohen, Barzilai was instrumental in recommending his graduate student to one of new slots. 

 Of course, none of these details appear in Carmi's article below. She prefers to use the Im Tirzu bogeyman of McCarthyism to tout the liberal values of her institution.

Times of Israel

Rivka Carmi  
The strong-minded Israelis we need to be
APRIL 22, 2013, 12:45 PM 17    

Professor Rivka Carmi is President of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

For the past few months I have been involved in a conversation with members of Im Tirtzu about what it means to be an Israeli. The group, which describes itself on its website as “an extra-parliamentary movement that works to strengthen and advance the values of Zionism in Israel,” has interpreted their mission as one of becoming the “watchdog” of Zionist values.

The battle lines are clearly drawn between Im Tirtzu – which objects to the notion of a university as a town square that allows for the expression of all ideas, particularly those they with which they disagree – and those of us who believe that this is the very duty of a university. The organization derides “exposing” students to speakers and opinions that some might consider anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli and claims that by inviting such speakers, we are validating their opinions.

Although this discussion began a few years ago when the group decided to appoint itself as “monitor” of Israeli universities, the current iteration over the last few weeks has focused on the BGU lecture series, “Who is an Israeli,” organized by members of the Israel Studies track – and particularly, the decision to invite MK Haneen Zoabi to speak in March. No matter that she was just one of the dozens of speakers that have been invited over the past few years or that organizers made it clear that her views are hers alone, Im Tirtzu objected to her very presence – as if as if ignoring her views would actually make them disappear.

Given Im Tirtzu’s self-appointed role, I cannot help but ask: who has given them the mandate to decide who is an Israeli?

Ultimately, we are a nation of over 8 million citizens who hold at least 10 million different opinions. I would maintain that if there is one trait that does define us as Israelis, it is our outspokenness; our determination to express our many different opinions. It is the agreement not to agree but at the same time the tolerance to hear each other out and respect other viewpoints. I believe that the heart of the Israeli experience is the hutzpa to have an opinion that differs from your neighbors. It is the irritation caused by hearing something that is foreign to your ideals, beliefs and feelings, yet to understand that it is legitimate for others to voice it. This is the basis of our democracy and the secret to Israel’s success.

The international bestseller Start-Up Nation points to these kinds of characteristics as the keys to Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit. The classic opinionated Israeli has become the force behind the country’s “creative energy.” It is this individualistic nature that has honed our national ability to improvise and invent, particularly in life-threatening situations. If we lose the willingness to argue, debate and disagree – with one another and with ourselves – we risk closing ourselves off from the world and from one another.

A strong Israel is one where everyone’s opinion can be heard without fear, if only to help us learn to articulate why we don’t agree. This is what it means to be Israeli. This is also the role of a university – to help students learn to think critically about science and about life. This is how societies grow strong from within.

Then again, you might want to disagree.

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