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How the Israeli right conspired to shut down 'lefty' department at BGU

The crackdown on Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Politics and Government may seem unprecedented, but a closer look reveals an ongoing campaign to challenge academic freedom in the university and beyond.

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

By B.N.*

While the attacks on the Department of Politics and Government of Ben-Gurion University are being viewed by many as an unprecedented measure, infringements of academic freedom in Israeli-controlled areas are common. They are often part of the regime of military occupation in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza. Today, such infringements in the occupied territories include limitations on students’ and faculty’s access to academic institutions through checkpoints and closures; prohibitions on Palestinian students in Gaza from studying in West Bank institutions; limitations on travel to study or attend conferences abroad, and monitoring of political activities on campuses, including the arrests of students and faculty for such activity. In December 2008 the Israeli Air Force bombed the Islamic University of Gaza, and a decade earlier, Israel closed down Palestinian universities, colleges, and schools. Birzeit University, for instance, was closed down for four years, from February 1988 to April 1992.

Recently, Israel’s government further merged educational and military affairs in its decision to upgrade the college in the West Bank settlement of Ariel to a university. The college (like the settlement) was established in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and is governed by a military officer. In September 2012, Israel’s government asked that military officer to upgrade the college to a university; this process is still pending.

In Israel proper, “threats to students’ freedom to organize politically-oriented activities on university premises and attacks on faculty who voice their criticism of government policies” are a persistent problem.

The Case of Ben Gurion University: The irregular international review process

Infringements of academic freedom expanded recently when a committee of the government’s Council for Higher Education (CHE) threatened to close the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University. The process began with a periodic international review of all political science departments in Israeli universities. Irregularities marred the review from its inception; following official announcement of the committee’s makeup, Prof. Ian Lustick (University of Pennsylvania) was removed from the committee without explanation. In response, the committee chair, Prof. Robert Shapiro (Columbia University) resigned. The committee was subsequently re-staffed with Prof. Thomas Risse (Freie Universität Berlin) as chair, and Prof. Avraham Diskin (Hebrew University).

Professor Diskin is a member of the advisory committee of a radical right-wing think tank, the Institute for Zionist Strategies (IZS). The IZS has close ties to Im Tirtzu, a group which in 2010 initiated an intensive campaign against the Department of Politics and Government at BGU. The campaign focused on the political views and extracurricular activity of faculty members and aimed at stifling debate over Israeli policies.

For instance, Im Tirtzu claimed that:

…the department’s faculty ‘works deliberately and energetically to promote fiercely anti-Zionist messages.’ They charged that nine of [the department’s] 11 permanent faculty members were involved in ‘radical left-wing’ political activity, and six had signed a letter supporting refusal to serve in the army.

The CHE is headed by Israel’s minister of education, Gideon Sa’ar, who supported Im Tirtzu and endorsed its campus activity in 2010. In addition, the CHE heeded the IZS’s effort to curtail academic freedom in Israeli universities.

Im Tirzu members demonstrate against those who have come to show solidarity with military refusers in front of the Tel Hashomer IDF base, near Tel Aviv. (photo: Activestills)

The international committee also included Prof. Gabriel Ben Dor (University of Haifa), Prof. Benjamin Jerry Cohen (University of California, Santa Barbara), Prof. Galia Golan (Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya), Prof. Ellen Immergut (Humboldt University Berlin), and Prof. Robert Lieber (Georgetown University). The committee’s report on the Department of Politics and Government at BGU was concerned primarily with three issues: the disciplinary orientation of the department’s research and teaching profile; the political activism component of the curriculum; and the unsubstantiated allegation (Hebrew)—familiar from Im Tirtzu’s campaign—that the department’s faculty members offer an imbalanced representation of political views in the classroom.

In 2002, CHE authorized the department’s organization as an interdisciplinary unit. However, the report criticized this interdisciplinary focus and demanded that the department “corrects its current weaknesses in its core discipline of political science in terms of number of faculty, curriculum, and research.”

Most authors of the report were also “concerned that the study of politics as a scientific discipline may be impeded by such strong emphasis on political activism.” However, a minority opinion by Professor Galia Golan questioned the unexplained linkage of disciplinary issues with the emphasis on political activism.

The report emphasized the importance of ensuring “a balance of views in the curriculum and the classroom” so that “students can take a critical perspective” even though it stated that undergraduate students “seemed to be able to express different views” from those of faculty members, and that graduate students said that they “were encouraged to be critical even of the lecturers.” In her minority opinion, Golan wrote that she was “not certain who or how a ‘balance’ might be determined,” and that “such a demand runs directly counter to the principle of academic freedom, a basic principle of university education.” The committee’s criticism of faculty members’ political views undermines the standards of academic reviews and suggests that the committee’s agenda was at least partially tainted by irrelevant political concerns.

The recommendation 

The report stated that if the department fails to introduce curricular changes and hire new faculty members in “core” areas of political science, then, “as a last resort, Ben Gurion University should consider closing the Department of Politics and Government.”

The committee made a curious methodological decision in evaluating the department’s publication record. Because of its interdisciplinary orientation, the department’s faculty publishes in journals in several fields. However, the committee counted only articles published in strictly political science and international relations journals. As a result, the committee counted only half of the articles and criticized the department at BGU for the ostensible weakness of insufficient publications. At the same time, it praised the publication record of Tel Aviv University’s political science department when in fact, even when disregarding articles that BGU published in journals outside the discipline, the BGU department publishes twice as many articles per faculty member.

Furthermore, the report stated erroneously that faculty members have not published books in leading academic presses, but the nine full-time faculty have, in fact, published six books in the three years prior to the report, of which three appeared in top academic presses (California, Cornell, Columbia), two more in Routledge, and a sixth in the top press in France.

Following the report, the department addressed the committee’s concerns by introducing changes to its curriculum and hiring three new faculty members. Professors Risse and Immergut of the international committee served as a subcommittee to follow up on the execution of the report’s recommendations. They responded to the university’s plan of action by saying:

 …if the Action Plan and the measures detailed in the letter of February 22, 2012, are implemented, BGU’s Department of Politics and Government will have followed the main recommendations of the CHE Evaluation Committee Report of September 2011. As a result, the option of closing the department which the Committee had mentioned as a last resort, in the absence of changes, should be off the table in our view. However, we cannot change the Committee report at this point.

Guilty until proven innocent

Several months later, the CHE’s Sub-Committee for Quality Assessment (SCQA) asked Risse and Immergut to review the CVs of the new faculty hired by the department. In July 2012, Risse and Immergut praised the department for its successful fulfillment of the committee’s requests and wrote:

“We congratulate the department on successfully recruiting three new faculty members in the areas of comparative politics, quantitative methods, and political theory, and for its plans for a fourth recruitment next year.”

Despite the international subcommittee’s satisfaction with the changes and the positive spirit of communication between the university and the committee, in September 2012 the CHE’s SCQA introduced new requirements that were never mentioned by the international committee. First, it stated its dissatisfaction with the fields of expertise of the new faculty members:

The department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University failed to take advantage of the new faculty recruitments following the international committee’s report in order to broaden the range of research approaches in the department in a way that would reflect the pluralism of approaches in the discipline. We refer mainly to the under-representation of the positivist approach in political science among the department’s faculty members. The recruitment of faculty members, most of whom represent a sub-approach of interpretive research (critical theory) in a department where this sub-approach is already overrepresented does not agree with the spirit of the international committee’s report [translated from Hebrew].

In so stating, the SCQA assumed the role of ultimate disciplinary arbiters of the field—despite the fact that only one of the ten professors on the SCQA is a political scientist—in violation of the academic freedom of the department and university. The professional report of the international committee does not even mention positivist approaches.

Moreover, the original report of the international committee suggested to strengthen a field that was already represented (European Studies) in order to “further build up this program as a unique selling point of the Department.” Even when the international subcommittee later suggested curricular modifications, it qualified this suggestion by saying that “this is, of course, up to the instructors to decide.” In light of this attitude, the SCQA’s new sweeping demands seem even more bizarre and intrusive.

The SCQA went even further and recommended prohibiting the department from enrolling new students as of summer 2013—in effect, beginning the gradual closure of the department. This stands in stark contrast to the international committee’s recommendation that only “as a last resort,” and only if changes are not instituted, “Ben Gurion University [and not CHE – bn] should consider closing the Department,” and even that suggestion was retracted in March 2012.

The SCQA further recommended that the CHE should:

 create a follow-up committee that would examine the changes in the Department of Politics and Government in the wake of the international committee’s report, including the extent of representation of mainstream methodological and theoretical approaches to political science in the material taught by the department” [translated from Hebrew].

The last two recommendations amount to declaring the department guilty until proven innocent as the decision of closure would precede further assessment. It is worth noting that these recommendations reflect Im Tirtzu’s extended campaign against the department, which was assisted by the IZS.

BGU President Rivka Carmi: ‘Astounded’

Understandably, the department and Ben-Gurion University were astounded by these unexpected new recommendations. Following their publication, BGU’s president Prof. Rivka Carmi, the rector and the dean of humanities and social sciences wrote to the BGU community:

we were astounded to find out that the CHE’s Sub-Committee discussed this issue again and published a new recommendation which contradicts that of the international committee” [translated from Hebrew].

Prof. Risse, chair of the international evaluation committee wrote (Hebrew) regarding the SCQA’s recommendation that

we were not consulted about items 4 and 5 [to establish another follow-up committee and to prohibit student enrolment]. . . . Does the SCQA recommendation suggest that we have completed our mission, or should we continue?

The university HAS initiated legal action against the CHE while the campaign against the department continues.

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

The CHE is scheduled to discuss the SCQA’s recommendations on October 30, 2012. So far, numerous international academic associations (including The American Political Science Association, the leading professional organization for the study of political science, The European Consortium for Political Research, The Association of American Geographers, The American Sociological Association, The Association for Israel Studies, The Middle East Studies Association of North America, and The Canadian Association of University Teachers) voiced their concerns for academic freedom in public statements and letters to the CHE and the Israeli Minister of Education, and so have a number of Israeli academic associations

Israel has fought calls for boycotting Israeli academic institutions by praising its own commitment to academic freedom. However, Israel’s education minister Gideon Saar (ex officio chair of the CHE) recently called for the dismissal [Hebrew] of Professor Neve Gordon, a member of the department, because of Gordon’s op-ed that supported the boycott. Saar’s statement increases the impression that this affair has been politically motivated and has little to do with academic merit. Moreover, if the Israeli Council for Higher Education shuts the department down or alternately fires any of its members, this can only strengthen international calls for severing ties with Israel’s academic establishment.

*The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a faculty member in one of Israel’s universities.


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    1. XYZ

      I would like to see a piece entitled “How the Israeli Left Conspired To Shut Down an Entire University In Ariel”.

      Memebers of the Department at BGU are big on calling for boycotts of Israel. So what is wrong with people calling for THEM to be boycotted. What hypocrisy!

      Reply to Comment
      • A boycott is voluntary. Prohibiting students from enrolling is not. It is, in fact, a quarantine–but you know all about those. And, as in other blockades, it will dry up the resources of the department, as intra-university money is distributed mostly by student head count per department. Get your words right, or get better ghosts for the XYZ label.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Philos

      The only way to end the status quo without ruffling any feathers is instead of giving monetary assistance to Israel turn that assistance into grants for Israeli students and faculty to study abroad. If Israelis had the financial capability they’d leave the country in droves. Brain drain the place and let’s leave it to the XYZ’s of the land to finish what they started.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        How much do you need to leave the country?

        Reply to Comment
    3. XYZ

      Your claim that Israelis would leave the country in droves is nonsense. Israelis are among the most optimistic and satisfied people in the world, including Israeli Arabs. In fact, the number of returning Israelis who have been outside the country for an extended period of time has grown considerably in recent years. I am sorry that this spoils your theory.

      See this link:

      Reply to Comment
    4. Kolumn9

      The University was presented with recommendations about how to correct the problems that plague the Department of Politics and Government. The biggest problem was the absence of any balance in regards to the way that Israel is taught in that department. This is a relatively natural consequence of overwhelmingly hiring professors who are followers of the ‘critical theory’ school of thought which is based on a radical Marxist approach to criticizing and undermining an existing system and reconstructing the world according to some idealistic utopia. The Department was asked to hire in a manner so as to balance out the existing prevailing outlook. Instead it chose to hire an additional three professors who fit the exact mold of the already existing ideological bias present among the faculty.

      These hiring decisions would appear to confirm the suspicion that the department is incapable of hiring anyone who doesn’t share the existing ideological biases. If this kind of ideological hiring is the department’s idea of academic freedom, then it is entirely legitimate to step in and take the appropriate measure to ensure that in the future the students get a more balanced education rather than to continue to allow the faculty of the department to pursue their own ideological agenda. This is a public university that is subsidized by the taxes paid by the public. Where such an institution veers off its mandate to provide a balanced and high-level education to its students it is not just legitimate, but mandatory, for regulators to take steps to set it back on its proper course.

      Reply to Comment
      • “it is entirely legitimate…” : since most people don’t believe in evolution, why is the State supporting such horrible views of humankind and so Jews? Let us purge the biology departments and return to true belief.

        You deal with this, if at all, by providing resources for alternatives–new lines above the usual increase. I think that would fail, but it would not be an attempt to eliminate impure thought. And, as usual, you present the present professors as “utopian” so wrong; you disallow, categorically, the possibility that boycott could be good for Israel in final outcome. True or not, I know not. But I can see someone trying to declare something nationally unclean.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Resources for alternatives? This is a public university. The resources are not there to be used by the professors for their own personal whims. They are there to teach students and do research. If they can’t teach in a balanced way and have turned the department into a playground for their own ideology to the exclusion of others, then there is no reason to continue sponsoring the exercise.

          Of course the professors are utopian. The entire basis of critical theory is that there is some perfect world that we must push our society towards. The world in its imperfections must be criticized, undermined and destroyed to build a new world, a better one. The origin of critical theory is in Marxism, another utopian theory.

          Of course I categorically disallow that boycotts could be good for Israel when their end goal is the end of Israel. What kind of insane asylum do you live in where you can see a project to end something as being good for it?

          Reply to Comment
          • Utopian? Admiting the distress of millions of Palestinians utopian? Saying a better way possible utopian? Wish we had more of you around throughout most of history. Oh, wait; we did. Under your logic Brown v Board of Education would never have been made. Under your logic the sole dissent of the First Justice Harlan in Plessy v Ferguson would never have been written–a dissent which, 80 years latter, effectively became the law of the land. Not utopian sir: hope.

            Reply to Comment
    5. Philos

      I don’t believe those surveys. I think it’s a matter of “don’t tell the goyim.” If you’ve ever had a conversation with an Israeli all they talk about is how great it would be to have a “European passport” or a US green card. But then again I presume XYZ and Kolumn9 only associate with Hardalim and national-religious types.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        This is the best potential emigration news I’ve read since Lisa Goldman did everyone a favor and inflicted herself on Canada. Please drop us a line and let us know how you’re doing in whatever country is unfortunate enough to grant you residency.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Social Science departments go through fads. My impression is that what finally moves a department toward a new orientation, apart from prior profs doing the hiering, is the quality of candidates in various sub-fields, changes in journal content, national/international meetings’ focus, and shifts in the allocation of grants. In one case, anthropology, the field has gone moribund at many universities, forced to merge into other departments, or simply terminated (the same happen to geography as a department). If the State wants to shift the political field, I suggest starting grant competitions which only Kolumn 9’s could win; you would begin to see a shift in hiering, albeit not total. And you could argue you weren’t quashing PRIOR voices–as in the present instance.

      During the Vietnam war there was an untenured philosophy professor at Arizona State University active in the anti-war movement. Once he canceled a class to drive down to Tuscan (from Phoenix) to attend a rally. He was fired for violating his teaching contract. And he had; but the occasional cancelling of classes is not that uncommon. He sued and lost. A national association of professors put ASU on a censure list. As ASU wasn’t that outstanding at the time, it is unlikely that censure (meaning “don’t apply for a job there, bad palce”) meant much, materially; the hot people wouldn’t want to go anyway. If the BGU case expands, international academics will turn away from Israel. There are other ways to satisfy the nationalist demands. Special grants, as above, or offering direct extra lines for hiering in the “under-represented” area(s), leaving the present profs to their normal fates. This last proposal might be hard for the BGU President to resist (free money) and would meet the nationalist fears. But what is wanted here is not representation but elimination.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        You think it is normal that under the current system my chances of getting a job in BGU’s Political Science Department are nil because I don’t agree with the dominant ideology or school of thought? Even under massive pressure the department is incapable of hiring outside its own ideological milieu.

        International academics can stay home if the alternative is a situation where the public is forced to accept a situation where a single ideological viewpoint is entirely dominant in a publicly funded university to the explicit and inherent exclusion of all others. I repeat, the department was asked to hire in a more balanced manner and failed to do so. As per the recommendations, the goal was diversity of opinion as you suggest, not the elimination of the existing ones. The department failed to do so and so, yes, the end result is that they might be eventually closed down because they appear structurally incapable of opening up their stronghold to alternative schools of thought.

        Reply to Comment
        • Good Lord, K9, the fact that you think you comprehend social process does not mean you do. Yes, I think it quite normal you wouldn’t be admitted–into most departments. My sarcastic point was that the State could quite easily arrange for right nationalist political analysts to have special hires. In the US, to bring more women into departments “special hire” affirmative action lines were created. The woman had to have a record at least equal to other candidates in presently offered, other posts, and a specialized knowledge and research profile unmet at the department; she could then be granted a special hire by the Dean. Not popular among all by far, but it did increase female representation, and often expanded the breath of the departments involved–something you may well not like. I’ve been out of academia for nearly two decades now, but I suspect special hires are fading, having done their job. I knew one such special hire, and I can tell you no one could question her quality.

          You push your position solely to destroy other positions you deem inherently harmful to Israel, which is the essence of McCarthism. As I have said repeatedly, this is a trick–for hard medicine like BDS might actually improve things under a different view of cultural health. As in the Boycott law, which you refrain from noticing here, the real object is the ellimination of opinion. You are no more able to judge a social theory than an evolutionary one. Theories which are weak die on their own; they don’t need your help. You are just purging for corporate Israel. And quite frankly, sir, you would have done the same to Spinoza.

          Reply to Comment