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Academic Freedom Under Attack? Interview with Prof. Neve Gordon

It has been a troubled year for Israeli academia. The rising nationalist sentiment in the government, legislature and civil society has spilled over into bitter struggles on campuses throughout the country. Nationalist groups such as IsraCampus, Israel Academia Monitor, and the ultra-nationalist Im Tirtzu have set their crosshairs on academia, seeking the dismissal of faculty members and control over curricula, and urging foreign donors to withdraw funds unless the faculty they have targeted are removed. They have published blacklists and ranked each university and department according to political legitimacy. Much of the fire has been directed at Ben Gurion University (*).According to an NRG story that appeared after the interview below, one donor threatened to suspend funds if certain political positions were not officially repudiated by Ben Gurion’s administration (Hebrew).

One striking result has been the politicization of very basic social concepts that should be part of the consensus, concepts once considered to be above politics. Thus the term “democracy,” is viewed by the ultra-nationalists as a left-wing political ideology, and it is increasingly de-legitimized in Israeli discourse. The concept of human rights is even more controversial. For the ultra-nationalist students and organizations, the term “human rights” symbolizes one-sided support for the Palestinians and subversive attempts to destroy the state. The liberal universalism that underlies human rights values is anathema to a parochial notion of state, and clashes with the creeping raison d’etat.

Therefore, a human rights conference planned by the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University in early April was a white-hot target for the nationalists. Im Tirtzu launched a well-orchestrated campaign  to pressure university president Professor Rivka Carmi to cancel the conference, on the pretense that it was not “balanced.” Dr. Dani Filc, the Department chair, responded that seven right wing speakers had been invited but declined to come. Still the demands continued, reaching University officials, Minister of Education Gideon Saar, the chair of the Knesset’s Education Committee, Alex Miller (Israel Beitenu). The conference was held as planned.

In this charged environment, Professor Neve Gordon agreed to be interviewed for +972. Professor Gordon was Chair of the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University for much of this controversial period. He is the author of Israel’s Occupation and an outspoken critic of Israel’s government policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. He is very close to the issues, having been the target of no small controversies himself in the past.

BEN GURION UNIVERSITY HAS BEEN IN THE EYE OF THE STORM. WHAT HAS BEEN THE SITUATION AT BEN GURION UNIVERSITY OVER THE LAST YEAR?

There’s an assault on Israeli academia in general. It involves an alliance between forces such as IsraCampus and Israel Academic Monitor on the one hand, who try to convince donors to stop giving money to universities that harbor leftists, and Im Tirzu, which tries to mobilize government Ministers and Members of Knesset to pressure the top university executives to discipline recalcitrant academics. There’s an alliance between elements in civil society, a handful of donors, and the government to stifle academic freedom and criticism of Israeli policy. The phenomenon is not only in the academic sphere…it also includes, for example, the attacks on the human rights organizations in Israel.

As I understand it, the assault has a twofold objective. The idea is to prevent the flow of information from Israel abroad, and because both academics and the Israeli human rights community have strong networks outside of Israel they are the one’s currently targeted. Simultaneously, there is an attempt to stifle internal debate, by reducing the limiting discussions about policies that lead to social wrongs and more violence and aggression.

HAVE THEY SUCCEEDED?

To a certain extent. We are seeing a totally new phenomenon in Israeli academia: students sitting in class, filming the classes and then passing information on to the monitor groups and the media. The recordings are almost always edited, so the information doesn’t reflect what really went on in class.

Such students consider themselves to be class monitors , rather than  people who have come to the university in order to study, broaden their horizon and expand their knowledge…not unlike the McCarthy era in the US, some Israeli student see themselves as agents of the state, as spies.

DO YOU MEAN THEY’RE NOT COMING TO CLASS TRULY TO LEARN, BUT RATHER TO GET AFFIRMATION FOR THEIR OPINIONS?

Some are open-minded and some are less so…We are blessed with excellent students; I think the student qua spy is still a small minority. But they definitely exist.

Another issue is foreign donors. Donations are a relatively small percentage of the budget, often 10% or less. Yet the donors wield immense influence…The monitors send information to donors in the US or England and a handful of these donors send letters to university administrations pressuring them to stifle academic freedom.

So there are attacks from Knesset and from foreign donors, and the mechanism of academic monitors feeds both.

WHAT ABOUT ISRAELI DONORS?

There are very few. But I believe they would be less influenced, because the sphere of legitimate  discourse is still much broader inside Israel,when it comes to criticizing government policy.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE IMPACT OF THOSE CIVIL SOCIETY CAMPAIGNS?

It’s hard to judge in the short term, but I believe we’ll see that they’ve succeeded a great deal in the long term.

Up to now, they haven’t managed to get anyone fired from the universities, because we still have a tenure system. But they’ve created gatekeepers. It’s becoming increasingly impossible to hire people who are critical of the Israeli government, or who have signed a [critical] petition…If [potential candidates] know this in advance, they will stop expressing their opinions and if they do decide to speak out, it will be more difficult for them to get hired…Not only the IsraCampus monitors but also politicians, the media and university administrators now agree that it’s OK for students to film professors in class and to monitor what petitions they sign…That’s a great success for those movements.

It’s extremely disturbing, because the student doesn’t understand his or her role in the university, and sees him or herself as an uncritical agent of the state… Ultimately the criticism is internalized, and many professors think twice or fear to speak their opinions.

The right turns the whole notion of academic freedom on its head – they say that people like me are the ones who stifle free speech. I find the implication that we control the discourse in Israel to be ludicrous. All one needs to do is turn on the television or read a newspaper. People who think like me are on the margins and their views are rarely heard in the mainstream media.

WHAT ABOUT THE FREQUENT ACCUSATION OF GROUPS SUCH AS IM TIRTZU, THAT RIGHT WING POLITICAL OPINIONS AREN’T ACCEPTED OR ARE PENALIZED?

The two last editors of Ben Gurion’s Department of Politics and Government student newspaper were [involved with] ImTirzu. The people who protested against the human rights conference were members of our department.  I’m proud they feel comfortable doing this, knowing they won’t be penalized. [The idea that their opinions are stifled] is a lie that certain activists are disseminating to the press …The Department and Ben Gurion University has proven itself open to a plethora of viewpoints.

But those who assault academic freedom don’t really want to debate, they want to attack. They don’t want to appear at our conferences – we invited people who represent the other side and they declined  to come…Knesset members, donors and protesters  demanded that our human rights conference will be “balanced” by including people who are against human rights. The whole notion of “balanced” is now being used as a weapon against the left. If there’s a conference on Darwin we do not need to invite creationists. For a Holocaust conference we should not be inviting Holocaust deniers – although one could claim that in the name of balance we would have to. Why, one might ask, should we invite people who are against human rights? We need to ask ourselves in which countries are HR conferences criticized? Iran, China, Syria..Are these the countries we want to follow?

The radical right wants to create a situation whereby only its views heard. The recent request to suspend me from teaching required courses is extremely telling. [A few weeks ago, Kadima MK Otniel Schneller wrote to Alex Miller (Israel Beitenu), Chair of the Knesset’s Education, Culture and Sports Committee, demanding that “at the very least, Gordon be prevented from teaching required courses that would force students to hear his defamatory views.”] (Hebrew)

HOW HAVE OTHER UNIVERSITIES IN ISRAEL REACTED?

Professors have coordinated to sign petitions [against such attacks], and there have been some discussions. But there isn’t really any organized, strategic or concerted attempt to deal with the phenomenon.

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING NOW?

Universities are not islands, they are part of Israeli society, and the attack on academic freedom merely reflects the more  general attack on liberal values. The attacks on human rights organizations, the fact that the Education Minister wants to erase democracy and citizenship studies from the curricula and replace it with Zionism and Judaism and the spate of racist and anti-democratic legislation going on in the Knesset, as well as the recent poll of youth attitudes, are all part of the same trend in Israeli society.

DO YOU FEAR FOR THE FUTURE OF ISRAELI DEMOCRACY?

We don’t need to imagine a dark future, we’re already there. Democracy is severely curtailed, we’re on a dark path, and unless something radical changes, unless a miracle happens, I think that within not so many years, the last remnants of Israeli democracy might be lost. The pattern may still change, but if the youth polls are correct, Knesset legislation in the future will be even worse. Democracy will be destroyed.

WHAT SHOULD ACADEMICS DO ABOUT THIS?

I’m not sure it’s the role of academics to change society. People should speak out in support of democracy and criticize undemocratic elements, but not necessarily through academia. Civil society movements should lead… academics  are not only academics, they are also something else, they are also members of civil society. And as members of civil society, academics need to struggle for social justice, locally and nationally.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF UNIVERSITY IN SOCIETY?

I think it has three major roles. One is the search for truth and knowledge. The second is to teach student how to think critically. The third role is to educate the students to be good citizens. Our role is not to try to convince students of our views; when we do that we become didactic, rather than encouraging critical thinking we encourage dogma. We want them to be independent thinkers; not to tell them what to think.

*Proper disclosure: I teach as an adjunct faculty member in the Politics of Conflict program at the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University).

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Louis Frankenthaler

      What Dr. Gordon describes is part of a calculated and comprehensive effort to end dissent and to attack the dissident community, including NGOs, academics, protesters, etc. At the same time the Monitors and self anointed priests of proper thought seem to have no shame and no inhibitions when it comes to wielding economic pressure on those institutions that espouse opinions with which they disagree…

      Reply to Comment
    2. Michael W.

      I agree, Dr. Neve Gordon is at the center of a boycott campaign orchestrated and supported by – Dr. Neve Gordon.

      The Dr. Neve Gordon is an innocent victim of a vicious campaign advocated by the anti-democratic advocate Dr. Neve Gordon.
      ————
      Okay, back to Earth. I don’t understand Why Dr. Gordon is complaining that people are actually following his advice for once, the advice he wrote in the LATimes. Does it really matter who is the first to be targetted? Did he really think the boycott campaign will end when all his political and ideological opponents have been defeated by the international BDS movement? I say he won’t be. He’ll be the first. If he can selectively support aspects of the BDS movement, why can’t other Israelis do the same? As long as he works at an Israeli institution, he’s fair game for the BDS movement, a movement he supports widely.

      Reply to Comment
    3. directrob

      No need to write about your opinion, the professor proofs quite capable of explaining the situation.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Dorothy Naor

      Given the revolutions now taking place in the Middle East, without people as Neve Gordon (and perhaps even with them)Israel is likely to become one of the few non-democratic and fascist countries in the Middle East, similar to Germany in the early and mid 1930s. But this is not unusual for tribal societies.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Michael W.

      Dorothy,

      Without people like Dr. Neve Gordon, people like Dr. Neve Gordon wouldn’t be prosecuted. Maybe Dr. Gordon should just drop his boycott campaign of Dr. Gordon?
      Too bad Dr. Gordon reads the LATimes. Otherwise, Dr. Gordon wouldn’t be orchestrating the boycott campaign against Dr. Gordon.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Eli

      “…students sitting in class, filming the classes and then passing information on to the monitor groups and the media. The recordings are almost always edited, so the information doesn’t reflect what really went on in class”.

      But who’s preventing Dr.Gordon from recording&distributing his own classes?

      Reply to Comment
    7. Yoav Gelber

      The writer mentioned for “proper disclosure” that she is adjunct teacher at Gordon’s dept. She didn’t mention, however, that this position – unlike tenured ones – has been totally dependent on him in his cpacity as department chair. Her take should be taken with a mountain, not a grain of salt. This is an invited review”, not a fair one.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Yoav, actually you’re entirely wrong. Although my position was approved by Professor Gordon last spring, the hire was initiated and came about through other faculty. When I began teaching, he was no longer department chair at all. Dr. Dani Filc was by then the current department chair and is now ultimately responsible for my continuing work at BGU.

      Reply to Comment
    9. What a pity, then, that when, last year, I suggested to Professor Gordon that he debate with me (at BGU) issues of BDS and academic freedom he emailed to say he was “not interested,” and that when I conducted a seminar at BGU (28 March this year) on “Intellectual Freedom & Academic Obligation” he apparently chose not to contribute to the discussion.

      Geoffrey Alderman

      [Patron, UK Council on Academic Freedom]

      Reply to Comment
    10. Frank

      So both Neve Gordon and Joseph Dana can tell foreign donors not to give any money to BGU because its an israeli university and therefore should be targetted for BDS but if right wingers want to launch a BDS campaign against it then they complain of stifling academic freedom?

      Reply to Comment
    11. Shmuel, we do not censor for critical content, but for trolling, offensive comments, incitement or repetition/length. Your have been trolling. Please join the debate in a reasonable way, under one user name. Your comments themselves are critical but perfectly legitimate and I would welcome them if you would post in an honest way.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Jacob

      Gordon has the absolute right to publish and propagate his ideas, including his call to boycott Israel. But, when he calls for boycott of his own university, which pays his salary, without resigning first, it shows a complete lack of personal integrity.
      One wonders, how long would a journalist continue to work for a newspaper he calls to boycott?
      If he doew not resign he should be fired.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Maya G

      How interesting that none of the free speech absolutists here defending the right of Gordon to lead the SWAT team against Israel have had anything at all to say about Gordon’s own SLAPP suit harassment against another professor in Israel, where Gordon filed an anti-democractic harassment SLAPP suit to silence the professor and “punish” him for criticizing Gordon’s own political behavior and writings. Free speech for me but not for thee?

      Reply to Comment
    14. Frigga

      Jacob and Maya do not get the point: there is discussion to save human values as Human Rights and democracy in a given society! Neve Gordon as defender of those values (which are the basis of modern states and societies)in his university has a big role to play for its saveguard. In an advanced democratic society students should be on his side and not on the side of a colonial type government stepping out from the 19th century. This is Israel’s reality today, completely anachronic.There is a sharp look in the future of professor Gordon. It is sad to spend all the energy for saving values created after the horrors of two world wars which are now again under attack. We should not even fight today for a colonial system in which the indigenous people are destroyed! What a penible moment in human history, allways repeating the horror. Neve Gordon should gouverne in Israel. The politicians are really not competent to rule in a save and human way the state.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Sima

      The fact that Gordon claims to be a defender of human rights does not make him a defender of human rights. In reality, he has very little interest in human rights. He explicitly opposes the human right of Jews to defend themselves. Of course, grasping this is beyond the ability of haters of Israel like Frigga who regard Israel as a colonialist entity.
      The whole problem is that Gordon and his ilk seek to dictate to students that they must be “on his side” (as Frigga demands) and against the side of Israel.
      The indigenous people of Israel are the Jews, whereas the Arab aggressors are the ones seeking to destroy the indigenous ones.

      Reply to Comment
    16. I live in a democracy where I am tolerated and respected. Donald Trump talks silly and can run for president of the country. Thats fine. Neve Gordon has taken ugly repellent criticism from many who fail to appreciate his zionist existence, thinking they are what is zionist. The greatest of the early thinkers on the subject would not dismiss his position as anti israel. He and his associates want a better Israel. Isaiah and Jeremiah had their detractors. We dishonor all the literary prophets, from Amos to those of our time, when we fail to accord Neve respect and honor. But prophets do not have comfortable lives. Yishyahu Leibowitz also sustained himself with grace. My critics will not understand my words. They call products made in Maale Adumim “made in Israel.” I don”t understand them.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Mitchell Cohen

      I am just wondering how many of the “free speech/academic freedom” advocates here would be in favor of Arutz 7 becoming a legal radio station?

      Reply to Comment
    18. Mitchell, the implication that the free speech advocates are incapable of holding a principle and are automatically pushing their own political agenda is such a tired cliche; you really expose the fact that you depend on knee-jerk critiques when you have nothing else to go on, or perhaps when you have no answer to the substantive arguments here – or else (my guess) – that you didn’t truly consider those arguments at all.
      The real question is why Arutz 7 ISN’T a legal station. Are they afraid of being held to proper journalistic standards? Prefer to avoid fees or taxes? Don’t feel like dealing with censors? feel themselves above the law? I daresay those are far bigger problems in Israel today than your make-believe one.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Mitchell Cohen

      972BLOG, do you have any evidence that Arutz 7 refused to do any of those things?

      Also, why is it that the Knesset passed a law to legalize Arutz 7, but then the law was shot down by the Supreme Court?

      And, yes, I still wonder how many of the regular bloggers here are losing sleep that a significant population in Israel still does not have a “legal” radio station representing their views.

      This is not a question that will go away anytime soon because you call it a “tired cliche”….

      Reply to Comment
    20. Abban Aziz

      In any other nation Neve Gordon would be charged with sedition.

      Imagine this. A government-sponsored public university hires facualty that promotes boycotts of their very own government.

      The government that pays them their salaries and gives them freedom in the most progressive state in the Middle East/Africa (not much of a competition though..)

      It is insanity. I can’t think of another country – Britain, USA, Germany – with similar “intellectuals.”

      This isn’t unique. Arab members of Israel’s parliament have made contact with members of Hamas, Hezbollah, leaders of Syria and Iran.

      Imagine US politicians meeting with members of Al Qaeda after 9/11. The outrage that would ensue.

      But in Israel it is tolerated. The Islamist movement has full freedom in Israel. Unlike in Jordan or Egypt where the Islamist movement is banned.

      Reply to Comment
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