The full story behind the war against free speech in Israel’s universities

22 October 2012

The Electronic Intifada – 22 October 2012

A sustained battle by the Israeli right to stifle academic freedom at the country’s universities is close to claiming its first major scalp.

In an unprecedented move last month, officials from Israel’s Council for Higher Education (CHE) — a government-appointed body overseeing universities and colleges — recommended the effective closure of the politics department of Ben Gurion University, based in the Negev/Naqab city of Beersheva.

Unless a rearguard action is successful by the university to mobilize protests from overseas academics, a meeting of the full CHE later this month is expected to rubber-stamp the decision to cancel the department’s enrollment of students for next year.

The threatened closure comes in the wake of a series of repressive measures sanctioned by the hardline right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu to intimidate or silence domestic criticism, from human rights groups to the media and judiciary.

Over the past few years, Israeli academia has been under growing attack too. Right-wing groups have produced lists of faculty members suspected of “left-wing bias” or “anti-Zionism.”

But the universities have become the particular focus of the right’s ire since a lecturer at Ben Gurion’s politics department, Neve Gordon, expressed support three years ago for the international campaign for an academic boycott of Israel.

At the time, Ben Gurion’s president, Rivka Carmi, publicly urged Gordon to quit his post, but the tenured lecturer could not be removed and has stayed on.

Shutting down the department, as officials at the Council for Higher Education are now proposing, would be a drastic way to force Gordon out, along with several other academics in a department that has become the right-wing’s bête noire.

Steven Plaut, an economist at Haifa University and a founder of IsraCampus, a self-styled “campus watchdog” group, summed up the right’s mood in a recent commentary in Arutz Sheva, the settlers’ main news agency.

He accused Israeli academics, particularly in politics and sociology departments, of spearheading the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. “Arguably, the worst institution in the country when it comes to anti-Israel agitprop (misrepresented as academic performance) has been Ben Gurion University (BGU),” he wrote. “And the worst anti-Israel department in all of Israel has been BGU’s Department of Politics” (“Shut down Ben Gurion U politics department,” 19 September 2012).

Cheerleading for Netanyahu

The real aim of the campaign against Gordon and Ben Gurion University was noted by a professor at the university, who wished to remain anonymous. “It sends a very strong message to other academics and departments in Israel that they should not engage in critical thinking. In the present climate, it’s either cheerlead for Netanyahu or keep your head down.”

Another added: “One should not be deceived about the claims that this is a dispassionate decision taken by a professional committee. This is a McCarthyite campaign, waged by the government through the CHE, to make an example of the university.”

The backlash against Ben Gurion’s politics department started almost immediately after a US newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, published a commentary by Gordon in August 2009 supporting an academic boycott to pressure Israel to end the occupation (“Boycott Israel,” 20 August 2009).

It was the first time a senior Israeli academic had made such a high-profile call. Significantly, it was published in the United States, where lobby groups have tightly policed the public discourse on Israel for many years.

Gordon faced death threats and, according to Israeli media reports, students were encouraged by right-wing groups to secretly film his classes.

Campaign led by rightist group

Leading the campaign was a far-right youth movement called Im Tirtzu. It had emerged three years earlier, in summer 2006, in the weeks following Israel’s savage but inconclusive attack on Lebanon. Im Tirtzu’s popularity rapidly grew as it harshly criticized Ehud Olmert’s government for what it saw as weak leadership that had undermined the war effort.

Since then, the group has taken a leading role in trying to root out signs of what it terms an emerging “post-Zionist agenda” in Israel’s universities, media and courts, as well as the “corrupting influence” on political discourse of local human rights groups.

As Israel’s political scene has lurched rightwards in recent years, the group has found many friends in high places. According to an investigation by the newspaper Haaretz, Im Tirtzu receives much of its funding from wealthy fundamentalist Christian evangelical groups channeled through the Jewish Agency, an international Zionist organization with a quasi-governmental status in Israel (“Major Israeli businesses quadrupled donations to right-wing Im Tirtzu movement,” 30 December 2011).

Gideon Saar, Netanyahu’s education minister and chairman of the Council for Higher Education, is known to have cultivated close ties to Im Tirtzu, and at its 2010 conference told delegates that they would be “blessed” for their “hugely vital” work (“Education minister vows to punish Israeli professors who back academic boycott,” Haaretz, 21 June 2010).

Following the election of Netanyahu’s right-wing government, one university president observed to Haaretz, that there had been an “open door Im Tirtzu activists enjoy to the political echelon in Israel” (“The project for democracy: Fighting for the ground rules,” Association for Civil Rights in Israel, October 2010 [PDF]).

The hunt for “post-Zionist” bias

Behind the scenes, other right-wing groups have joined the fray, most notably the Institute for Zionist Strategies (IZS), an organization founded by settler leaders and heavily reliant on funding from the Hudson Institute, a neoconservative think-tank in Washington.

Saar’s alliance with Im Tirtzu and the IZS — and their joint efforts to “re-Zionize” the education system — prompted more than 500 educators to sign a petition in 2010 calling on the minister to “come to your senses … before it’s too late to save higher education in Israel” (“Hundreds of Israeli professors protest at ‘McCarthyite’ right-wing education minister,” The National, 11 July 2010).

The signers included two of Saar’s predecessors, Yuli Tamir and Yossi Sarid.

One of Im Tirtzu’s responses to Gordon’s commentary was a call for a counter-boycott: it urged overseas donors, mainly wealthy American Jews and Jewish foundations, to withdraw their support from Ben Gurion University unless Gordon was sacked and the curriculum overhauled (“Im Tirtzu threatens boycott of Israeli university over ‘anti-Zionist’ bias,” Haaretz, 17 August 2010).

Saar, concerned about the impact on higher education, whose state-funded budget was already being squeezed, opposed the campaign. Im Tirtzu and the Institute for Zionist Strategies therefore changed tack, this time with Saar’s apparent full backing.

The two organizations began evaluating the politics and sociology departments at Israel’s universities for signs of “post-Zionist” bias, and published reports a short time later. The civics curriculum at schools came under similar scrutiny (“Maariv reporter exposé: Ben Gurion U’s anti-Israel faculty,” Arutz Sheva, 11 January 2011).

The findings were all too predictable: the humanities departments in Israeli universities were riddled with post-Zionist and anti-Zionist thinking, creating what Im Tirtzu described as a “reign of left-wing terror.” Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion universities were identified as particular hotbeds of post-Zionism.

The two groups insisted that these universities should correct the bias among staff and revise the content of their syllabuses.

The reports’ spurious claims were noted by Oren Yiftachel, a geographer at Ben Gurion University, who in a letter about the threat to his university’s politics department pointed out that “many academic departments in Israel are homogenous, usually on the Zionist-conservative side. But no official body raises with them the issue of ‘balance’” (“Your assistance is needed,” Israeli Academia Under Attack, 18 September 2012).

Universities feel the pressure

Nonetheless, the findings of anti-Zionism were greeted with great fanfare by the Israeli media as well as conspicuous concern by the government.

Saar hurriedly convened a special meeting of the education committee in Israel’s parliament, at which education officials were grilled about “left-wing bias.” Speakers at the meeting suggested that suspect lecturers should be subjected to intensified monitoring and inspections.

At the same time, Saar declared that there would be “measures taken vis-a-vis the heads of these institutions [the universities]. This matter is on our agenda — and we plan on taking action over the course of the summer [2010].”

As the mood soured, some university officials began to cave in to the pressure.

Most notably, Joseph Klafter, the newly appointed president of Tel Aviv University, instituted a review of the syllabus of the criticized courses, a move seemingly designed both to placate the right and to send a message to his staff that they were on a short leash.

Haaretz reported that Klafter had taken the decision after receiving, along with other university presidents, a letter from Moshe Vigdor, director-general of the Council for Higher Education, warning that the CHE viewed “seriously” the Institute of Zionist Strategies’ findings (“Head to head with Joseph Klafter,” 18 August 2010).

Tel Aviv and Haifa universities, especially, appeared to be making gestures of conciliation to the government. Political activities on campus, especially by Palestinian students, were severely circumscribed, including speeches by Arab politicians and demonstrations in 2010 against Israel’s killing of activists aboard an aid flotilla to Gaza.

In addition, the two universities set up programs to teach hasbara, a term officially translated as “public diplomacy” but in practice signifying propaganda and the use of misinformation.

Netanyahu’s government, however, was not mollified. It continued to take a firm stance, with both high schools and universities the prime targets.

No room for civics

Regarding primary and secondary education, Saar introduced sweeping changes that included a piece of new legislation, the so-called Nakba Law, that denied funds to public institutions, including schools, that commemorated the Palestinians’ dispossession in 1948 or questioned the country’s Jewish character.

Saar also instituted new Jewish studies courses; required more schools to take children on trips to heritage sites in occupied Palestinian areas, including East Jerusalem and Hebron; extended programs that brought settlers and soldiers into the classroom; and appointed right-wingers and religious extremists to key posts in the education ministry.

But the civics program, the only part of the school curriculum open to tackling “post-Zionist” issues such as democracy, human rights, equality, and universal principles of citizenship, became the focus of Saar’s attention.

He began by banning established civics textbooks and then appointed hardline right-wingers to key positions within the civics program, including Asher Cohen, a senior member of the Institute of Zionist Strategies, who became the new head of the civics committee. A colleague at the institute, Avraham Diskin, was authorized to write a replacement civics textbook that reaffirmed Zionist orthodoxies.

In August this year the clean-out culminated in the sacking of the ministry’s supervisor of the civics curriculum, despite a petition opposing the decision from hundreds of civics teachers, including some from the right (“Teachers hold emergency meeting to back civics supervisor,” Haaretz, 26 July 2012).

Academic freedoms policed

The campaign against the civics program had echoes of the reprisals being mounted against the universities.

Again, the government resorted to legislation. Last year the parliament passed the Boycott Law, a draconian assault on freedom of expression. It authorizes individuals — chiefly the settlers — to sue for damages anyone who issues a call for a boycott.

Should Gordon — or any other academic in Israel — write a similar commentary again, he could easily find himself bankrupted by lawsuits.

But, it seems, Netanyahu’s government had even bigger ambitions.

In comments to investigative reporter Uri Blau, the Institute for Zionist Strategies admitted it had discontinued its research into post-Zionist trends in Israeli academia because the task had been transferred to the Council for Higher Education, presumably by Saar himself (“Finding the right donors for post-Zionism,” Haaretz, 22 Febrary 2012).

Under its mandate, the Council for Higher Education is forbidden from interfering in the content of university courses. Instead, an ostensibly neutral body — an international evaluation committee — was established in late 2010 to review the country’s politics departments. The committee was led by international experts but most of the members were Israeli academics.

The CHE soon interfered in the committee’s work, however. One of the key members, Ian Lustick, a highly respected political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on Israeli society, was removed for unspecified reasons (“Damaging Israel’s scientific reputation,” The Jerusalem Post, 10 September 2012).

The Los Angeles Times quoted Lustick this month describing the current situation faced by Israeli academia as “a real witch-hunt.”

Lustick’s dismissal prompted the resignation of the committee’s chair, Robert Shapiro of Columbia University.

The committee was re-formed under the direction of a German political science professor, Thomas Risse of Berlin’s Free University. Many of the local committee members appointed by the Council for Higher Education were right-wingers or settlers, including the Institute of Zionist Strategies’ Avraham Diskin, who had earlier been put in charge of re-Zionizing the civics program in schools.

In the current political climate in Israel, few academics wish to voice their views openly. But several have privately criticized Risse for accepting the post in such circumstances, especially given that he had no familiarity with Israel and did not know Hebrew.

“Instead of leading the committee, he seems to have relied on the Israeli members of the committee for guidance,” said one politics lecturer who also wished to remain anonymous. “And given the dominance of right-wing academics, the outcome was preordained.”

“Too much activism”

In yet another irregularity, the committee’s findings were leaked to the Israeli media in November 2011. Ben Gurion University’s politics department was singled out for special criticism, with its curriculum attacked for its lack of balance. Committee members added that they were “concerned that the study of politics as a scientific discipline may be impeded by such strong emphasis on political activism” (“Recommendation: shut down ‘leftist’ department,” Ynet, 23 November 2011).

The committee recommended that the department recruit more mainstream political science faculty and make changes to the curriculum, adding that, as a last resort, the department might have to be shut down if it did not comply.

Ben Gurion University responded with a number of rebuttals, and suggested that the committee’s evaluation had been deeply flawed (“Inaccuracies and fallacies of the report submitted by the International Evaluation Committee on the department of politics and government,” Israeli Academia Under Attack, 18 September 2012).

The most painful irony for the university was that the department had been established just over a decade earlier, with the approval of the Council for Higher Education, precisely to do what it was now being faulted for: to break with the traditional, conservative approach in Israel to teaching politics.

The department consciously fostered an interdisciplinary approach and qualitative research designed to encourage more critical thinking from students. It was therefore hardly surprising that it had attracted a number of professors known for their social and political activism.

The evaluation committee’s concern on this point appeared to echo that of Im Tirtzu, which in its 2010 report had noted that nine out of the department’s 11 professors were involved in “radical left-wing” activity and six had signed petitions in favor of refusal to serve in the Israeli army occupying the West Bank and Gaza.

But, even putting aside these problematic complaints by the committee, it had made several important factual errors that heavily misrepresented the department’s work.

For example, the department was criticized for its poor record in publishing articles in refereed academic journals. But the committee had ignored the many articles by faculty published in journals outside the fields of political science and international relations, even though that broader scope was supposed to be one of the department’s strengths.

Noticeably, the committee also ignored an important measure of Ben Gurion department’s claim to academic excellence: the success of its staff in receiving competitive research grants, with the best average of any politics department in the country.

Further, the case against the department appeared not to be based on expressions of dissatisfaction from current students or alumnae; the department enjoys great popularity with students and high rates of registration.

Complying with the committee’s demands did not help

Despite expressing its objections, Ben Gurion’s administration agreed to comply with the evaluation committee’s recommendations: that the department appoint four new faculty and make changes to the curriculum.

In late 2011 the Council for Higher Education endorsed the report and appointed Risse and Ellen Immergut, a professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, as a two-person panel to oversee implementation of the recommendations.

Ben Gurion quickly began hiring new staff and revising the curriculum. In a letter sent to Ben Gurion University in March this year, Risse and Immergut said that the option of closing the department “should be off the table in our view” (“Israeli panel urges to keep Ben Gurion political science department open,” Haaretz, 3 April 2012).

Four months later, in July, the pair wrote to the university to “congratulate the department on successfully recruiting three new faculty members.” They suggested the department give the new scholars “the time, resources, and mentoring to publish in top-ranked international refereed journals and university presses” (“The CHE committee overrules the recommendations of its evaluation board,” Israeli Academia Under Attack, 22 September 2012).

It was therefore with considerable surprise that Ben Gurion University administrators learnt from the Israeli media a few weeks later, in early September, that a subcommittee of the Council for Higher Education — one responsible for quality control — had decided that enrolment at the university’s politics department should be halted from 2013.

The sub-committee accused the department of failing both to comply with the evaluation committee’s recommendations and to “reflect the pluralism of the discipline.”

More than 300 Israeli academics had soon signed a petition, warning that “the new recommendations hint that the objective, closing the department, was determined in advance.”

In an open letter, Rivka Carmi, Ben Gurion University’s president, set out the stakes: “This is not Ben Gurion University’s private battle, but a struggle of all Israeli academic institutions.”

On a knife edge

Initially, Risse and Immergut appeared reluctant to speak out or to explain the inconsistencies between their own recent assessment of the department and those of the Council for Higher Education’s sub-committee. However, nearly a month after the sub-committee’s decision came to light, they issued a statement distancing themselves from the move.

In a letter sent to the CHE, Risse and Immergut stated that Ben Gurion’s politics department was being singled out and that the measures being taken against it were not those originally proposed. They added that they had taken no part in the decision and wondered what the motive for it was (“Politics at Ben Gurion may eliminate politics in class,” Forward, 7 October 2012).

In meetings with staff, Carmi has proposed a theory of her own. She believes the Council for Higher Education has made an example of her university because — as the head of the association of university presidents — she is leading the fight against the Israeli government’s recent decision to upgrade to university status Ariel college, which is located in the settlement of Ariel, deep in the West Bank.

The universities’ campaign has little to do with the morality or legality of the government’s move to establish the first-ever Israeli university in the occupied West Bank. Rather, they are worried that they will each forfeit some of their portion of the government’s higher education budget if they have to share it with a new upstart university like Ariel (“West Bank college puts Israeli policies to the test,” The Daily Star, 26 September 2012).

Certainly, the government seems determined to force through the decision on Ariel, whatever the opposition, because it is a key plank of its policy of bringing the settlements into the Israeli mainstream, blurring the distinction between occupied territory and “Israel proper.”

Ben Gurion University and sympathetic Israeli academics are now organizing their struggle against the Council for Higher Education. The university has threatened legal action, arguing that the uncertainty currently surrounding registration may mean it cannot fill student places next year, even should the CHE later reverse its position.

And a website called Israeli Academia Under Attack has lobbied for international support. Prominent figures backing its campaign include Robert Paxton, a historian at Columbia University in New York and a leading scholar on fascism. In a letter posted on the site, he has written: “In a 40-year academic career, I have never known of so severe a punishment for an academic department in a university in a free country” (“Prof Robert Paxton to the CHE…,” 28 September 2012).

The paradox is that the right’s campaign against Ben Gurion — fueled by the desire to block Israeli academia from providing any legitimacy to the boycott campaign — is actually strengthening the very international forces Netanyahu’s government wants to stamp out.

The further erosion of academic freedoms in Israel is likely to give the BDS movement a powerful boost.

According to David Newman, a senior member of Ben Gurion’s faculty and a staunch opponent of the BDS campaign, “the Council [for] Higher Education is doing more damage and harm to the name of Israel’s universities than all of our enemies put together.”

Not by accident, the attempt by education officials to close Ben Gurion’s politics department has coincided with the government’s campaign to transform Ariel into a respectable university. The two issues are hard to disentangle as the far-right in Israel finally senses its own unassailable dominance.

Israeli academia’s freedoms — like those of the rest of the society — are poised on a knife edge.

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