Israeli Academia: Crossing The Line?
On September 5, a "subcommittee on quality assurance" of the Israeli Council of Higher Education, generally referred to by its Hebrew acronym Malag, met to vote a recommendation that registration of students to the Government Department at Ben Gurion University of the Negev be suspended. If, on October 23, this recommendation is accepted by the whole plenum of the Malag, the department will be, in effect, shut down and its faculty fired. This matter may seem, well, academic. It is hardly that.
The Malag is chaired, ex-officio, by Minister of Education Gideon Saar, an outspoken defender of Greater Israel, who engineered the certification of Ariel College in the occupied territories as a university. Appointments to the Malag are nominated by all institutions of higher education and approved by the Ministry.
Still, the threat to close down the BGU department is not a case of naked repression of academic freedom by Netanyahu’s ultra government. In a way, it is worse than that, for it reflects an emergent “consensus” in the administration of higher education in Israel, aimed at stifling criticism of the occupation and its implications by advancing the presumed virtues of scientific neutrality; a consensus fueled by public officials and abetted by self-styled “Zionist” watchdog groups; a conformist partisanship advanced by muddled political language, intimidation, self-censorship, apathy, and garden-variety cowardice, much like what we saw during McCarthyism in the early 1950s.
Here is the story in brief. As a matter of course, the Malag appoints subcommittees, usually including international scholars, to review each university department and assess its standards. In this case, the subcommittee reviewing BGU’s department was chaired by Thomas Risse of Germany’s Freie Universitat, and its composition was contentious from the start. The Ministry, in effect, blocked the appointment of an American scholar who had been a well-known critic of the occupation to the initial subcommittee, eventually causing another American scholar to resign. In consequence, another Israeli scholar (a founder of Peace Now) filed a minority demurral.
The Malag might have cried foul then. It did not. It’s not a government rubber stamp, but rather a consciously “centrist” institution, made up of representatives, nominated by home institutions and dependent on government funds; its members reflect the cautious attitudes typical of faculty drawn to administrative careers. No surprise, then, that when Risse’s committee reported back to the Malag, almost one year ago, it suggested certain changes to the BGU department curriculum and hiring. The report noted, among other things:
[T]he strong emphasis on ‘community activism’ emphasized by the Department raises at least two questions. First, are students receiving a sufficiently rigorous foundation in the discipline of politics and government to equip them…? Second, is there a balance of views in the curriculum and the classroom?
What exactly was meant by “community activism”? The report did not really get into this, as if to imply that the very effort of political scholars to embolden political engagement was self-evidently wrong. As for providing students a more “rigorous foundation in the discipline of politics,” the committee specified quantitative and “positivist” methods, where facts are presumably dissociated from “values.” The latter, presumably, were to be left out of classrooms.
It escaped no one’s attention that the committee was reviewing a department that included Prof. Neve Gordon, who was alleged to have called for a boycott of Israeli businesses and universities so long as the occupation continues—a position I have myself opposed, but not his right to advocate it, obviously—and that others in the faculty argued for activism in various NGOs like Physicians for Human Rights. Meanwhile, Im Tirzu, the self-appointed cultural policeman that had campaigned against the New Israel Fund, was actively campaigning to increase “Zionist” advocacy in BGU’s classrooms. (You can read about the case in detail here and here.)
I hasten to add that Risse's subcommittee had never recommended shuttering the department. He recently reiterated, in writing, that he believed the BGU’s faculty was making progress toward the hiring goals his committee had set for it and objected to any radical steps against it. By September 5, however, the plot had thickened. A newer incarnation of the subcommittee on quality, without Risse or any international figures of note—and spearheaded by Hebrew University’s Moshe Maor, among others close to the Minister (Maor is a crusader for “positivism”)—decided on a different course: just close the thing down.
And it is important to understand how extraordinary a step the Malag is entertaining. Former Education Minister Yuli Tamir told me that, ordinarily, the Malag plenum deals with the expansion of teaching in poorer development towns, or the funding of colleges as compared with universities. “The Malag, never that I can remember, actually debated the content of what was taught in specific departments,” she said.
Indeed, the Malag’s action may be illegal. Law professor Uriel Procaccia writes in Haaretz that the Malag has jurisdiction only to accredit institutions and consider matters of process, but specifically does not have jurisdiction to interfere with the freedom of recognized institutions “to finance its administration and research..., appointments and promotion, methods of teaching…” The president of BGU, Rivka Carmi, stands firmly behind her department.
Incidentally, a similar subcommittee on quality had found the political science department at the National Orthodox Bar Ilan University wanting—for different reasons, but in an equally vehement report. (My friend, Prof. Menachem Klein, an internationally renown Middle East scholar, has seen his promotion held up for manifest political reasons over many years at Bar Ilan, a hotbed of the settler movement, but there has never been a hint of closing down any department there.)
But what of the Ben Gurion department’s call for “community activism”? Should professors not strive for “balance”? Here we get to the heart of the matter.
Prof. Yoram Peri—Editor of Israel Studies Review—noted recently that many departments advance a school of thought: nobody would dream of closing down the University of Chicago’s economics department because it is dominated by a “laissez-faire” advocates. The key is to maintain common standards of academic rigor: peer review, professional distinction (hard as this is to prove) and, crucially, an openness for students to challenge all prevailing opinion with logic and rules of evidence.
Well, then, does “community activism” qualify as a school of thought, too? Actually, when you listen to how members of the department define this, they are advancing the school of thought, not only for teachers of politics, but for all university teachers as well.
Universities, after all, are not simply a place to teach “science” or “facts,” political or otherwise. Universities are rather the most perfect products, and most important custodians, of liberal standards of scientific doubt and intellectual freedom, underpinning what the University of Chicago’s famed president Robert Maynard Hutchins called “citizenship.” Academic freedom is, you see, merely an idealization of general political liberty; the classroom is a microcosm of equal rights under the law, of the nonviolent settlement of disputes—a framework to valorize individuality and tolerance, standards basic to allowing science to proceed.
And so when the Malag’s current subcommittee insists on “balance,” this may sound like an appeal for liberal standards, but it is actually an insistence on curtailing freedom for nationalist reasons, specific to what Israel has become with the occupation. “Balance,” in this sense, exposes how different the meanings of “right” and “left” are in Israel compared to Western democracies not corrupted by the need to cover up their double standard for civil rights.
In Israel today, a “rightist” may have some love of the free-market but is really committed to national exceptionalism, much like Joe McCarthy in his time and place, or neocons in theirs. Rightists in Israel harbor the idea that “Zionism” always justified special privileges for Jews, who would otherwise be kicked around by evil forces, and special rights for the Jewish people in the historic land, including an occupation that slowly completes the task of settling Israelis over Palestinian resistance.
So a “leftist,” in this context, is by definition a principled liberal who refuses to disregard individual and civil rights—including Palestinians’ rights to property, national distinction, and “citizenship”—in order to advance some improvised nationalist agenda. Think of Edward R. Morrow in his time and place.
The late Dan Patinkin, who established the hegemony of the University of Chicago school in the Hebrew University’s economics department, was also a vocal supporter of Peace Now. Today, he would be considered a radical “leftist,” a “post-Zionist,” in Im Tirzu’s lingo. So would Hutchins be a “leftist.” And so are BGU’s faculty, given their commitment to “social activism”—which implies just international liberalism anywhere else, but sedition, a lack of “balance,” in a country where world attention on ordinary human rights disrupts and discredits the plans of people committed to the status quo settlement project.
In other words, the “centrists” on the Malag call for “balance,” but what they mean to invite is what Orwell called double-think: their “consensus” entails lip-service to liberalism, at least when they attend international conferences, but not a commitment that undermines social solidarity. They are arguing for a kind of social complacency, or tribal loyalty above justice to individuals, precisely what the BGU government department says it opposes.
Which is precisely why complaints about BGU faculty not teaching enough of quantitative and “positivist” methods seem so hollow. Yes, a student of politics should know something about polling techniques, or ways of gauging attitudes, narratives, “preferences.” But a political scientist is, first and foremost, someone who explores the legal and institutional frameworks in which officials exert power; not only whether what officials say is true, or the psychology of citizens, but whether the laws and institutions both uphold are consistent with a process in which truth—doubt, freedom, evidence—can continue to be established. Political scientists are not, or should not, just be people who teach students whether official lies are working. They are creatures of political freedom.
One thing is certain: if the Malag indeed closes down BGU’s politics department, it will ironically undermine international resistance to Gordon’s arguments for boycotting Israeli universities and colleges—the very arguments that got the Malag’s attention in the first place. For closure will call into question whether Israeli scholars are truly free or just pawns of the government, their institutions unworthy of international respect. You can’t argue for the freedom of scholarship at the same time as subjecting the freedom of your scholars to a nationalist “consensus.” Or you can, I guess, but then you can’t expect international scholars to have anything to do with you.