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Hebrew University
The New Israel Fund and the Academe: the Case of Avner De-Shalit


Editorial Note

The New Israel Fund (NIF) is a multi-million politically engaged, left-leaning foundation designated to transform Israel into a society in which progressive values should trump its Jewish character.  As the NIF leadership sees it, democratic and Jewish values in Israel are not compatible.  To this end, NIF has donated some $30M annually to progressive and pro-Arab groups.   For years large supporter of NIF was the Ford Foundation which launched in 2003 an initial grant of $20 million and in September 2007 another $20 million for extending its partnership in Israel in order to "support civil society, human rights and social justice organizations in Israel." 

Both Ford and NIF are considered controversial and were criticized by some American Jews and Israelis.   

NIF has strong connection to the Israeli academy.  The former Hebrew University professor Naomi Chazan served as its president between 2008-2012 and there are many others involved.  Professor Avner De Shalit, a political scientist at the Hebrew University and a former dean of the social sciences has been involved with NIF for about two decades, also by serving on NIF's international board.

His politics is in accordance to NIF's ideology and is quite evident in his writing. In his 2004 "Being Israeli," he writes about Haifa, "one knows that there had been life there before the Jews came. Much of this land was bought for money rather than taken by force, but still . . . Could it be because the price of saving of the Jewish nation – and probably without Zionism preceding the Second World War, most the Jewish nation (at least in Europe) would have vanished in the Nazi gas chambers – was humiliating another nation? Or was it a necessary price? It seems that living with those guilt feelings and hesitations is part of being Israeli. It is morally and emotionally impossible to be indifferent to these feelings. Most Israelis either become obsessed by them or become engaged in a process of denial. So either one tries to prove that, despite what has happened, we Israelis are basically goodhearted, we have been and are ready to divide the land, to negotiate, to compensate, and so on; or one simply denies that a problem exists. ‘There is no such thing as a Palestinian nation’, Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister between 1969 and 1974, used to say. Some right-wing fanatics in Israeli still claim so. Others admit that saying so would appear ridiculous. Of course there is a Palestinian nation; however, they claim, Israel must not allow this nation to have its own state because it would imply a threat to Israel’s sovereignty. Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Affairs Minister at the time of writing this paper, argues so." 

As a scholar, De-Shalit takes great pride in his alleged academic neutrality and impartiality, according to his 2006 article "Teaching political philosophy and academic neutrality

He writes:  "In 2002, while I was teaching in Israel, I was very worried about the immorality of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. A group of several colleagues and myself initiated a petition. The petition set out our position, as university lecturers, on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. It was published in the press and we were interviewed about the moral grounds for our view.  The next day, when I entered my MA seminar on ‘Political Philosophy and Practice’, one of the students challenged me: ‘How dare you tell us that political philosophy can change the world if you, Israeli political theorists, have failed to put forward the argument that would stop the occupation?’ Many students joined him, saying that academics in general, but political theorists in particular, were having rather little impact on the state’s policies.  As if this was not enough, when I left the classroom I bumped into an ex-student of mine.  He was furious:  I am so disappointed. You exploited your position as a university professor when you signed this petition as ‘Professor so and so’. You must distinguish between your political opinions and your position as a university professor. This is the opposite of what you have always taught us about the profession of teaching politics. ‘Is that what I taught them?’  I thought to myself while rushing to my room; ‘Can’t be’. I looked at the textbooks they had read in their first year of undergraduate studies. Indeed, they discussed academic objectivity and neutrality. Funny, because I had been feeling during the years following the collapse of the peace process in the Middle East, that political philosophers couldn’t afford the luxury of not referring to the ‘situation’. They were even obliged to put forward their moral arguments and provoke the students to use the tools we had given them, such as concepts, theories, and the like, to reflect more profoundly on these issues. In fact, political philosophers were doing so in any case by the very fact that they were teaching political philosophy in the context of the conflict. So were the books wrong?" 

De-Shalit concludes that "while university lecturers should not adhere to academic neutrality, they should be impartial."

But a look at some of De-Shalit's actions seem to indicate that, while he talks the talk he does not walk the walk.

De-Shalit harnesses NIF affiliates as Phd students. Noam Hofstadter was part of the Courage to Refuse Signers' List in 2002.  As mentioned above,  De-Shalit signed the petition "Open Letter from Faculty Members", who wished to "express our appreciation and support for those of our students and lecturers who refuse to serve as soldiers in the occupied territories" and "our readiness to do our best to help students."   

Hopstadter is being introduced by a NIF think-tank as a "post-doctoral Fellow at Ben Gurion University, where he teaches political science. Previously, he served as Director of Peace Now and as spokesman for B’tselem."   Hopstadter's PhD thesis The Expression of Values in the Practice of Not-for-Profit Human and Civil Rights Organizationsexplores three NIF grantees The Association for Civil Rights in Israel; Physicians for Human Rights – Israel; and Yesh Din. He writes, "My own activism has taught me lessons that I as of yet have not found in any book... but nevertheless I wish to convey my deepest appreciation to my partners-in-activism, whose determination, creativity, mistakes, experience and companionship have laid the cornerstones for this thesis."   

There is something unethical about it.   As a member of the international board of NIF De-Shalit was in conflict of interests and should have not signed on a dissertation which is an academic hagiography of NIF's grantees.

De-Shalit seemed to fail his own advise on impartiality and objectivity in another issue. In 2001, the Council of Higher Education appointed a two member committee to evaluate the Department of Politics and Government of Ben Gurion University's request to offer a BA program.  Professor Zeev Maoz, a leading political scientist and a former head of the Jaffe Centre for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, found that the department did not offer core political science courses and that its faculty were ill equipped to fill the void. He recommended closing the department but the second evaluator, Avner De-Shalit disagreed and, in November 2003, the CHE appointed a new committee under De-Shalit which in 2004 decided that the department offered a "unique program" and approved the department's request.   The questionable goings-on in the Department came up again when in 2011, the CHE appointed an International Committee for Evaluation of Political Science and International Relations Programs in Israeli universities.  Chaired by Professor Thomas Risse of Berlin’s Free University, the Committee seemed to side with Maoz's 2001 review.  The report identified serious problems in the department: weakness of core political science offerings as well as excessive "community activism" and lack of balanced views in the curriculum and the classroom.  

There may be, of course, legitimate explanations as to why De-Shalit's view was at odds with the evaluations of Maoz and the Risse committee.  Still, it would be reasonable to question if De-Shalit's service with the NIF had influenced his judgment.

As his 2006 essay on academic neutrality and impartiality indicates, De-Shalit understands that scholars should not be tainted by suspicions of political partiality. Unfortunately, he does not practice what he preaches.


A Blow to Students of the South

The threat of closing down the Department for Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University must be lifted.

Avner De-Shalit


A recent survey showed that students' parents are required to provide increasing assistance to enable their children to pay tuition, living expenses and rent. To make matters worse, the Council for Higher Education, a state body headed by Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, is about to deal yet another blow to students, this time to those living in the periphery.


The council is poised to discuss a proposal of its sub-committee banning students' admission to Ben-Gurion University's Department of Politics and Government, unless the department accepts the council's diktat for personnel changes. Much has been written about this issue, usually framing it in the context of a political struggle (on the face of it, the council stands for a rightist approach while the department stands for a leftist one) or an academic clash (in which the council claims the department's research approach is overly-critical). But few have noticed what is behind these struggles. For the first time the Council of Higher Education is trying to dictate who will be faculty members of the university. In other words, this is a struggle for control, for power.


This is the first trial, a pilot one, being conducted on a weak target - on a young university in the periphery and on students who are too busy trying to survive economically to be able to get organized to protest this attempt. A little less than a decade ago I chaired a previous committee appointed by the council to examine whether the Department of Politics and Government at BGU (then a very young university) could grant a first degree. Among those we interviewed were dozens of students. We found a group of enthusiastic students, who were in love with the department and the university. They had another thing in common, too. Many of them lived in the southern region - Yeroham, the communities along the Gaza border, Be'er Sheva itself and the Bedouin communities in the Negev. For many of them this was the only opportunity of obtaining higher education at a price they could afford. The department nurtured them and invested a great deal in them. They were proud to be part of the higher education world in Israel.


Over the years this department has attracted students from wealthier classes from all over the country as well, but the university has always made sure to welcome residents of the region and students of limited means. These are the people who will be harmed by the council's decision if it adopts the sub-committee's recommendation.


Perhaps the education minister - a man usually sensitive to the needs of poorer communities and people in the periphery - is inadvertently joining forces with an aggressive group from the council he heads, a group interested in accumulating powers and brutally shutting down the gates of higher education to people in the periphery.


The student from Yeroham, the discharged soldier from Be'er Sheva, the Bedouin from Rahat and the entrepreneurial young woman from Sderot, who want to gain a higher education and cannot afford the rent prices in Tel Aviv, will find the the door of the Department for Politics and Government closed due to the council's megalomania.

This is the time to call on the education minister to come to his senses. The threat of closing down the department must be lifted.


Professor de-Shalit is a member of the Political Science Department in the Hebrew University and until recently served as dean of the Social Sciences faculty.

RobertK 2012-10-21 21:50  
Don't try to spin this as a periphery vs government issue.
It is about a department which refuses to teach in a balanced manner and has failed to heed the warnings given out to it by regulators. Instead of balancing out the extreme left-wing faculty as suggested by the regulators the department hired even more extreme left-wing professors. The department had its chance to resolve the issue before it got shut down. Don't even try to pretend your defense of the department has anything to do with the students when what you are really defending is the right of a political science department to exclude all opinions except the ones it deems politically acceptable.

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