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A major political battle is taking place this autumn within Israeli academia: the Israeli Council for Higher Education (CHE), a government-appointed body charged with the supervision and financing of universities and colleges in Israel, is attempting to shut down the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University (BGU). In recent years, the Department of Politics and Governments has been labeled by right-wing organizations as “the most leftist in Israel,” and leading academics have been subject to boycott call and demands not to renew their contracts. Yet, never before has the fate of the entire department been threatened.
Earlier this month, a sub-committee for quality control, which was appointed by the Israeli Council for Higher Education, recommended that the Department of Politics and Government at BGU be prevented from registering new students in the coming academic year, due to the failure to implement a report regarding “professional failures” in the department, issued last year. The recommendation, which effectively means closing down the department, will be voted on by the CHE on October 23rd.
Both the original report and the recent decision not to allow the Department of Politics and Government to register new students were leaked to the press before they were made known to Ben-Gurion University.
The attempt to shut down the BGU department cannot be separated from the government’s recent decision to turn a college in the West Bank settlement of Ariel into Israel’s eighth university. After packing the Israeli courts with right-wing judges and weakening the independent media, Netanyahu’s government is now attempting to politicize academia and silence dissenting voices. As a result, the nature of the public debate in Israel is rapidly changing.
In a public letter to all members of the Israeli academic and research community, Prof. Rivka Carmi, President of Ben-Gurion University stated:
The sub-committee’s decision was reached without any factual base to back it up; it is unreasonable and disproportional and most notably, it does not in any way reflect the opinion of the international committee which oversaw the process. We therefore wonder what is actually behind this decision.
Ironically, Professor Carmi has been known for years as a leading voice in criticizing the Israeli academics at her university who have expressed radical left-wing positions. But the attack on the university was so brutal and extreme, that it left the president no choice but to lead the campaign against it, several sources involved in the affair told me.
A few years back, right-wing organizations began campaigning against “leftist” professors and academics. Three organizations – Im Tirzu, Academia Monitor and Isra-Campus – came up with a list of 1,000 faculty members suspected of left-wing bias or “anti-Zionism.”
Im Tirzu, the most well-known of the three organizations, and the one to enjoy the support of prominent Likud members and ministers, has put a special emphasis on Ben-Gurion University. Three years ago, Im Tirzu threatened President Carmi “to scare off donors” if the university did not get rid of its left-wing faculty members. Later, the group distributed posters suggesting that faculty members in the Department of Politics and Government supported the 2001 lynch of two IDF soldiers in Ramallah – a blood libel without a shred of evidence behind it.
One of Im Tirzu’s prominent supporters is Education Minister Gidon Sa’ar (Likud). During his time in office, Sa’ar attended the Im Tirzu 2010 national convention, in which he promised “to act against professors who call for an academic boycott on Israel.” Saar also promised “to study” the findings of a shady report by Im Tirzu which pretended to measure “the anti-Zionist bias” in political science departments in Israel. “I congratulate you and your work,” Saar told the Im Tirzu convention in 2010, according to a report in Haaretz.
In his capacity as Minister of Education, Sa’ar also heads the Israeli Council for Higher Education.
The Council for Higher Education’s mandate forbids it from interfering with the actual material taught in universities and colleges. Therefore, a few years ago, an “impartial” international committee was formed to examine the political science departments in Israel. Pretty early on, leading members of the committee felt that something was wrong with the entire process. Prof. Ian Lustick, a political scientist from University of Pennsylvania, was removed from the committee; as a result, Prof. Robert Shapiro of Columbia University resigned from his position as the committee’s chair. Among those left was Prof. Avraham Diskin, who has authored articles praising the work of Im Tirzu.
The remaining members in the special committee produced an unprecedented report, which called to examine the entire existence of the Department for Politics and Government at BGU. The main point of attack had to do with the inter-disciplinary nature of the academic work at BGU, which until then had earned praise and was considered the trademark of this department (+972 was the first to obtain and publish the report in its entirely; you can read it here). One committee member, Prof. Galia Golan, refused to sign the report, claiming it was politically motivated. Instead, Golan wrote a minority opinion, in which she stated that the demand “for a balance (of views) in the classroom… runs directly counter to the principle of academic freedom.”
Still, Ben-Gurion University felt that it had to comply with the report, and changes were made in the department in order to put more emphasis on traditional political science research. As a result, two international evaluators appointed by the CHE to oversee the process congratulated the department for working to “fill its deficit.”
Despite all of that, the letter by the international observers was followed by a recommendation by a sub-committee within the Council for Higher Education to shut down the department. Just like the government vote that established the first Israeli university in occupied territory, the October vote on the fate of the department for politics and government will be a turning point for the Israeli academia, after which nothing may look the same.
Despite the bureaucratic tones behind much of the proceedings involving the Department for Politics and Government at BGU, there is no doubt in my mind that the prime motivation behind the attack on the department and the university are political. Several sources I have spoken to – even those who last year saw the criticism as “a professional dispute” and not a political one – hold the same opinion. As Prof. Carmi noted, the attack is not aimed only against this department or against this university. The main function of the Council for Higher Education is to provide budgets for universities. In an era of budget cuts, who will want to further annoy this government-appointed council? What will become of professors and researchers who hold left-wing or critical options, and whose contracts are up for renewal or evaluation? Will Im Tirzu now become the standard-bearer in academic discourse?
Even if the effort to shut down the department of politics and government fails, the “cooling effect” on the political conversation by such acts is already tangible, and the marginalization of dissenting voices in Israel is a fact of life.