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State council seeks to shut down 'leftist' department at BGU

In an unprecedented move, the Council for Higher Education will vote on shutting down the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University, which has been the target of right-wing propaganda for the last several years.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (photo: Cccc3333/CC-BY-SA-3.0)

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.”

Rivka Carmi, President of Ben-Gurion University (photo: Ben Gurion University / CC BY-3.0)

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.


University accreditation for W. Bank college – a step towards one state
Panel recommends closing BGU politics dept. for “political bias”
Excerpts of leaked report on BGU’s Politics Dept

Israeli and international academics have started a petition in support of the Department of Politics and Government. You can read more on the issue on this site.


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    1. Kolumn9

      Professors who call for the international academic boycott of research projects done within their own academic institutions on ideological grounds have absolutely no legs to stand on when they argue for the continued support of their own research by the Israeli state on the basis of academic freedom.

      BGU is a school that operates on a budget granted by the state. It is entirely legitimate for the state through legitimate institutions to ensure that funding does not extend to those professors who operate in a manner that is harmful to the well-being of the state and its citizens. In this case that is precisely what some of these professors are doing and I can’t imagine much of an argument against this point given that the fundamental goal of the BDS movement is to damage the Israeli economy and to undermine the Israeli state. Not only that, but there isn’t even an aspect of academic freedom in the matter. The professors are free to pursue their academic research within any framework they choose, they are just not going to continue doing so while being supported by the public coffers. Israel does have the framework for private universities and colleges and these professors can seek employment there, or they are free to open their own institution. I am presuming there are some international NGOs that would be happy to subsidize just such a school.

      This isn’t going to end at BGU. There are plenty of professors at various other Israeli universities that are spewing poisonous explicitly anti-Israeli rhetoric while supporting international boycotts of Israel as if they are teaching in Columbia and not in Jerusalem or Haifa while being subsidized by the Israeli taxpayer.

      Reply to Comment
      • This is McCarthry baiting. You provide no evidence that anyone is “supporting” BDS in the department, nor do you differentiate between BDS toward the settlements and Israel proper; failing this latter distinction, you force others to assert there is no difference between the settlements and Israel proper, yet this is a contested point in Israel. Boycotts generally are a standard form of political action; yet you assert they “damage the Israeli economy” and should be forbidden. This is a corporate view of the State, well on the road to a racial facism, where people exit for the good of the State. The left is so marginalized in Israel at the moment that little direct harm, on your own terms, will result from these view academics; but thought control has no tolerance at all.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Evidence of ‘someone in the department supporting BDS in the department’:

          That ‘someone’ also writes on 972mag, so I am surprised you missed this, and, no, the BDS movement makes no distinction between boycotting Israel or the territories. One can’t endorse the BDS movement while pretending otherwise.

          Boycotts are a standard form of political action designed to damage the economy or economic well-being of the party targeted. In this case the explicit goal of BDS is to damage the Israeli economy. As such, I fail to see your distinction.

          As for ‘forbidding’ boycotts. One can’t forbid boycotts. If an individual doesn’t buy Israeli goods or visit Israel, that is entirely their choice without any capacity on the part of the state to prevent that. At the same time the citizens of the targeted body have the full right to expect that their tax money isn’t used to subsidize those that promote their own economic ruin. That is precisely what this is about – the use of public coffers (aka tax money) to subsidize the speech of professors who promote an international movement explicitly devoted to damaging the economy, academic institutions and yes, the state.

          If the only arguments you have here are empty cries of Mccarthyism, vague accusations of racism and an incredible inability to frame a coherent argument, then you really are on very shaky ground.

          Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      I propose the following deal:
      We of the political Right will support keeping the Department at BGU open, and in return, you “progressives” will support the move to make the Ariel University status official.
      Sounds fair to me.

      Reply to Comment
      • You do not take away someone’s food, them tell them that if they do what you want you will return it.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Why, of course. What you do if you are an American is you take away their land, slaughter their people, herd them away to obscure deserts, sell them disease infested blankets, get them addicted to alcohol, destroy their ecosystem, and when you have enough of a power advantage you grant them minimal autonomy. Is that what you do?

          Also, not sure how your remark is relevant to an article about Israeli universities or XYZ’s comment about the entirely empty and selective cries for academic freedom on the Israeli left.

          Reply to Comment
          • Horrors of the past do not negate actions in the present. And, once again, boycotts are a standard form of action in a democracy. Differentiate between BDS against Israel proper and the settlements. And provide evidence that this department has individuals actively harming the State in a mannor not allowed under standard democracy. One cannot make calls for the removal of Bibi an action against Israel.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            There is nothing in the definition of standard democracy that obligates the public to provide funding to any individuals that explicitly support actions designed to harm the public. A call to boycott the economy, academic institutions and cultural contacts is hardly a call to remove Bibi. It is a call to stigmatize and damage all sectors of the public.

            This isn’t about the legitimacy of the boycott. It is about the public funding of individuals who explicitly call for damage to be done to the economy of the public that subsidizes them.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Mitchell Cohen

      I second XYZ’s proposal. Kolumn9 makes good points. Shouting “Mccarthyism” isn’t going to drown them out.

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ’s proposal (accepting Ariel’s university status in exchange for remaining open) basically translates as, “Don’t oppose the policy of entrenching settlements even further. Support it instead. And then you can keep operating.”

        In other words, their right to operate as a political science department is contingent on their willingness to subscribe en masse to a particular political viewpoint. Conform to state ideology, or close. Marvellous.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          They have all the rights in the world to operate a political science department. They don’t have the right to expect public funding when operating as activists against the people and institutions that pay their salaries.

          Reply to Comment
          • Philos has already pointed out the dangers of this idea. University faculty members shouldn’t have to support their state lock, stock, and barrel and they should be free to make their own choices about political action, otherwise universities simply become government mouthpieces. Your argument is basically ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you’ – no matter what else that hand might be doing. This is an argument that is routinely applied in dictatorships.

            Reply to Comment
    4. Danny

      This is good news for the boycott-Israeli-academia crowd. If this measure against BGU goes through, it will be much easier to push an academic boycott of Israel and make it stick. Kudos to Saar and his Im Tirzu thugs for helping to make it easier to boycott Israel!

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Yeah, because the boycott-Israeli-academia crowd needed an excuse.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Piotr Berman

      One excuse that was there for the boycott of Israeli academia was that Israel curtails the freedoms of Palestinian academics and students, including outright bombardment of universities.

      But political repressions for “their own academics” make the case much easier to make.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Let me try to do better, through an example. When polled, < 50% of US citizens say they believe in evolution. In some States, the % is rather small. Now, nothing can be more important than eternal salvation. If evolution is a lie, it can harm for eternity, keeping people lost from the only hope. So people's tax $ should not support evolution which, in some States, a clear majority repudiate–which means about all biology departments therein should be erased. This matter is much more important than a nation state in finite history–we are talking eternity here. You might make a weaker argument for banning climate change talk.

      Majoritarian logic will fail. In fact, all exterior regulation of academics will fail similarily. Internal regulation is far from ideal; trends silence dissent, at times with religious like certainty. In the case of BDS, if the State can delcare ultimate harm by such talk, it can declare unions dangerous a fortiori, for strikes have an immediate impact on the economy, while BDS is quite nebulous at present in outcome.

      What is happening is that a few academics are being singled out for traitorous thought irrespective of actual impact on anything; that is McCarthism, sorry to say.

      The Knesset has already made speech a civil offense. Now the State is trying to censure thought solely based on the premise that it is wrong for Israel. Christian creationists have an equally strong argument against evolution, for they too know the only successful path. You would be better off arguing that BDS talk–talk–is a form of pornography. Why not go there?

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        I notice that you chose to not reply to my posts above and to switch tacks to entirely unrelated examples which make absolutely no sense in relation to the topic at hand.

        The professors can say whatever they want, they just don’t have the right to expect that the public will finance them when they call explicitly for damage to be done to the public, and in this case to call explicitly for damage to be done to the very institutions that pay their salaries.

        It doesn’t matter if it is one professor, ten professors or a hundred professors. It doesn’t matter if they have an impact or not. The principle of the matter is that when you are publicly and explicitly working towards harming the very institutions that support you, you really have no right to expect continued support.

        Reply to Comment
        • Creationists can as well argue that the public is being damaged by evolutionists supported by their taxes; more, since this damage harms the public, it ultimatley harms the State, so evolutionists are harming the very institution which pays their salary. So biology departments should be banned.

          You implicitly assume that any boycott position will ultimately harm the State; yet, if that State changes its policy, it might bloom greater–an empirical matter. Consider the American South upon removal of Jim Crow.

          You have reified the State in race and now police thought for racial correctness. If an academic even advocates limited boycott of the settlements you will define this as harm to the State. The State is the people, and the people cannot complain, for they are the State. Those refusing are–race traitors. The civil boycott law leads to this end, clearly.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            A professor explicitly calls for an action that is designed to damage the economy and academic institutions of the country, including his own. This isn’t some vague line of reasoning from creationism to damaging the country. This was an explicit, open and purposeful call to economically damage the very institutions that pay his salary. By what possible logical reasoning should institutions continue to pay people that are directly trying to damage them?

            If that creationist analogy nonsense is the best example of your logical reasoning, you really should stop digging. The rest of the stuff you are just making up, but hey, whatever keeps you happy.

            Reply to Comment
          • “If that creationist analogy nonsense is the best example of your logical reasoning, you really should stop digging. The rest of the stuff you are just making up, but hey, whatever keeps you happy.”–you are turning ugly, K9, a clear sign something is wrong.

            It is quite possible that one could believe a boycott is the best thing for one’s land at the moment. The creationism analogy fails for you precisely because you are not a born again creationist–but that is the point, you deny their premise, so see no harm, while they see eternal harm. As I have pointed out, the Boycott civil law denies speech solely based on presumed harm as well. In both cases, a concept of race traitor is being articulated. But I assert the true harm to Israel is in this silencing. For once things are silenced, alternative vanishes–and alternative is what you fear. Let them speak and be fools; do you not know the true way all will follow?

            Reply to Comment
          • Speech does, can harm. Silence harms as well. You may reply to speech, but not to the silenced. If you think a boycott call wrong, state your reasons, join the debate. That is where Israel prospers. Exactly what has Israel done to make you think a boycott call would be heard? There lies your fear.

            Reply to Comment
    7. There was a bit more:

      The Knesset has already made speech a civil offense. Now the State is trying to censure thought solely based on the premise that it is wrong for Israel. Christian creationists have an equally strong argument against evolution, for they too know the only successful path. You would be better off arguing that BDS talk–talk–is a form of pornography. Why not go there?

      Reply to Comment
    8. Bluegrass Picker of Afula

      >> boycotts are a standard form of action in a democracy

      Yes, we are going to crush the BGU dept of politics. And I refuse to call it “science”. As Lord Rutherford noted, it’s more like stamp-collecting.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Philos

      Greg, don’t bother. These people have no idea what academic freedom means (let alone freedom). They have no idea that the point of tenure and ring-fenced research grants is so that academics, brave ones anyway, can take very challenging positions designed to provoke debate. These guys would support the excommunication of Copernicus had they been contemporaneous Catholics or the excommunication of Spinoza had they been contemporaneous Jews. Indeed, as per their logic an academic who conducted research into the misconduct of academic institutions would not be worthy of support because he/she “would be damaging the institutions that support” him/her. From this logic academics would no longer be permitted to question the economy, democracy or law because by virtue of questioning the status quo one damages it.
      The people belong to the state, and the state is an organic whole which must rid itself of all manifestations of disease. That is the basic credo these guys are adhering to even if they’re totally and blissfully unaware of it.

      Reply to Comment
      • Piotr Berman

        “Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato.” Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State. (Il Duce)

        Reply to Comment
      • Philos, I see comments and replies not so much as direct conversation (although they can be in good form) but as a decision to not allow the forum to be crushed, as Picker, above, would say. Can I make a statement without rancor? Can I articulate a position transcending this forum? These questions I ask myself. I am most often not happy with what I say here. Although I know myself not important at all, I would like to think some words might go on.

        But thank you. I think you right about how Spinoza would be gleefully treated this day. The others’ words ae important because they are articulating the concept of race traitor, and this must be refused.

        Reply to Comment
    10. Piotr Berman

      Kolumn9 correctly observes that the citizens through their elected representatives have the right to demand that state employees protect their values and interests rather than subverting them. What is strange is that State of Israel is so slow and round-about in proceeding toward that goal.

      When I was a wee lad, more precisely 7-grader in elementary school I witnessed how it can be done. I was member of Scouts (co-ed scouts), and one day our our scout masters (I do not know good English equivalents) got arrested. It turned out that this was closely related to the fact that they were university students who rather then simply attending lectures, tests and exams took parts in most misguided gatherings. Authorities also reviewed the role of professors and it was discovered that a large number was lamentably lax in their duties as educators and ideologically unacceptable. They were relieved of their duties, administrators who tolerated their outrageous behavior were demoted (it happened in 1968).

      If one country may find professors as being too Zionist (they were also other ideological deviations, chiefly “revisionism”), why another can’t find professors to be insufficiently Zionists? “Nulla contro lo Stato”.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Neve Gordon

      Peace can only be achieved by denying there ever was a Holocaust and then by driving all the yids into the sea with pointed bayonets behind them.

      Reply to Comment
    12. delia ruhe

      How old is Israel now? About 65? And its leadership — and many of its citizens and supporters in the Diaspora — still haven’t figured out how to deal with a challenge in an adult fashion.

      Reply to Comment
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