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Eroding liberties: The 'witch-hunt' against Israeli academia

By Todd Gitlin

Why should Americans care about political interference in the universities of a far-off country? Because the far-off country is Israel, one of our closest allies, a nation that features intimately in our own political life; and because Israel’s domestic affairs have a way of morphing into subjects of America’s never-ending culture wars. So it is of considerable importance that as Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu turns up the volume on claims that Israel is at risk from barbarians, his government persists in illicitly expanding its powers and eroding liberties.

In July, Israeli universities were shaken when a college located in the West Bank, Ariel University Center, was declared by Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar to be worthy of the status of an Israeli university and of being supported as such—although Israel’s seven university leaders (along with the Planning and Budgeting Committee of Israel’s statutory Council for Higher Education) opposed that decision, and under international law the university is not located in the territory of Israel. Such is the stranglehold that West Bank settlers have on Netanyahu’s government.

Sa’ar’s steamroller is busy. He heads Israel’s Council for Higher Education, which routinely reviews academic departments. Toward that end the council named a committee to review international and political-science programs. One member of the panel—the only one who studies Israel professionally—was a University of Pennsylvania political-science professor, Ian Lustick. In October 2011, Lustick told me, he learned he had been tossed off the committee by the council’s higher-ups, whereupon the chairman of the review committee, Robert Shapiro, a Columbia University political scientist, resigned in protest.

Subsequently, a panel subcommittee recommended certain improvements in Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s political-science department—improvements that were matters of curriculum and scope. The department proceeded to make the recommended changes—“in record time,” according to the university president, Rivka Carmi, in an open letter dated September 19, 2012. This, she writes, “elicited a positive written response from the two international members who had been appointed to oversee the implementation of the recommendations.” Then something “unprecedented” happened:  “We were astonished to discover that the Council for Higher Education’s subcommittee discussed the same issue once again and published a new decision, extreme in its severity, which is totally at odds with the evaluation written by the two international members who had been appointed to oversee the process.”

The new decision was that no students were to be admitted for the 2013-14 academic year. “This extreme decision was reached not due to any unusual incident or a severe act,” Carmi wrote, “or because demands made by the Council for Higher Education were not met.”

Although Carmi has frequently expressed political disagreement with the political scientists on her campus, she knows that the principle of academic freedom is at stake. She wrote in no uncertain terms:

For all intents and purposes, this is a decision to close down a university department in Israel. … The subcommittee’s decision was reached without any factual base to back it up; it is unreasonable and disproportional, and, most importantly, 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. This struggle is not only about Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, but rather it is a struggle of the entire Israeli academic community. … The approval of this decision by the Council for Higher Education [expected in October] will constitute a devastating blow to academic independence in Israel.

Neve Gordon, a Ben-Gurion University political-science professor, told me that no academic department had ever been shut down by the Council for Higher Education during the 64-year history of the state of Israel. Shutting down a department permits the summary firing of tenured professors.

Netanyahu’s Likud party and its nationalist ally, Yisrael Beiteinu, have been cracking down on dissenters for months. It would seem that cowing the academy is one of their objectives. Of the current academic situation in Israel, Lustick told me, “there’s a real witch-hunt.” These are the tactics of a government that throttles liberties and punishes opponents. Such developments, if they took place in Egypt or Russia, would constitute plain human-rights violations and would—I hope, at any rate—elicit protests from the State Department. Not only the State Department but all lovers of freedom should be heard from now.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. He is author, with Liel Leibovitz, of The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election (Simon & Schuster, 2010). This piece was originally published by the Chronicle of Higher Education


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    1. Piotr Berman

      For Arab student going to Ariel, the message is ‘Yalla, get off the bus’
      Iniya Daher, a Tel Aviv resident, says security guards forced her off a bus at gunpoint on her way to Ariel University Center in the West Bank.

      The nature of “Ariel University Center”, and Ariel as such is revealed. Citizens of Israel can be barred from entering even if they are enrolled at the University Center as students, and well, even though they are citizens, when the speak Arabic or use an Arabic or Muslim head covering. And who knows, leftist may be barred too?

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        A 3rd year Arab student at the University (one of thousands) was stopped and searched by security guards at the Sha’ar Shomron checkpoint which is on the green line, so, not in Ariel.

        So, what precisely is revealed about Ariel University from such an incident?

        Reply to Comment
        • Piotr Berman

          Ariel is an Apartheid zone, from which you can be ejected for giving visible or audible signs of Arab ethnicity, regardless of citizenship. As such, it is not a “normal community”, and neither is University Center there.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Binyamin

      As a Jewish Poly Sci PhD candidate myself who supports the idea of a Jewish state I am really offended that the CHE is thinking of curbing academic freedom. The light unto the nations is dimmer for this and I pray the state will reconsider and realize its hubris. It is “a shanda fer de goyim” to Quote Abbie Hoffman, z”l. It is harder to support Israel in academia when Israeli academia is becoming so narrow in scope and focus.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Kolumn9

      I see you have talked to one of the witches being hunted and by that I mean the BGU professor that endorsed a campaign to boycott his country’s economy and his own university.

      Were you to become an activist who calls for and supports a boycott of Columbia University, how long do you think you would last there?

      Reply to Comment
      • “I see you have talked to one of the witches being hunted…”–K9, you probably do know what you just said. Others have said it, in many places and times.

        As someone else pointed out on the other thread of this story, this State action increases the chances of an academic boycott. The present piece appeared first in the Chronicile of Higher Education.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          So let it increase chances of academic boycotts. As a matter of principle, people that are active in trying to damage the Israeli economy and Israeli universities do not deserve to be paid by the Israeli taxpayer for being employed at an Israeli university.

          Reply to Comment
        • K9’s argument is spurious, attempting to force the assumption that non-cooperation is inherently damaging to the concept of Israel. It is not. One can love something so much to risk one’s own standing; and those controlling the State are not Israel–those covered by the Israeli Declaration of Independence are Israel.

          A whistle blower risks his own place, and the present standing of his institution/employer, to cry a wrong. If the cry is false, he pays the penalty. In the present case, academia itself would correct the crier if judged wrong. The State acts because it fears other thought; because it is forcing a single defintion of the good of Israel upon the populace. Under K9’s reasoning, all noncooperation against the State would be barred. The same logic interlies the Boycott Law: all dissent calling for the mobilization of others, if against anyone’s present economic station, is dangerous to the State. Socrates, Gandhi, Buber, King, Romero all stand against you K9. Israel is more than any present thought.

          Reply to Comment