This week saw academic freedom in Israel challenged. A nationalistic student group, Im Tirtzu, came out against the Politics and Government Department of Ben Gurion University, singling it out as the most left wing political science department in the country and threatening to chase away university donors unless changes were made to the department’s personnel and curriculum.

The group said it had received complaints from students about a strong left-wing slant in the department’s faculty and that prompted it to send a letter to the university president with an ultimatum – make the required changes or we’ll chase away donors.

The letter, which was sent to Karmi a month ago, stipulates that unless she met their demands within a month, Im Tirtzu would, “Use all the legal means at our disposal to bring to the attention of the present and future student body and especially to the university’s supporters in Israel and abroad, the severity of the situation and the ongoing disregard by university management that allowed things to arrive at their current state.

“We will request that all the donors submit their contributions to a trust fund managed by a lawyer, to be released to the university after it is factually proved that the bias that exists in the department, as expressed in the faculty make-up and the syllabus content, is remedied,” the letter read.

Im Tirtzu director Ronen Shoval told The Jerusalem Post that the group’s research had found that BGU’s Politics and Government Department stood out from all the other political science departments in the country as being the most left-wing. Shoval said that the group had received complaints from students that their instructors were only exposing them to extreme Left positions and that efforts by students to balance the dialogue were rebuked by the faculty.

“The department has 11 faculty members, of whom nine are involved in political activities that present extreme leftist positions,” said Shoval.

“Six out of the 11 faculty members have signed a petition calling on soldiers to refuse to serve in the West Bank. Two research fellows are known to have anti- Zionist beliefs. Eight out of 19 external lecturers express radical leftist positions and our research shows that there is a sharp slant in the program’s syllabus, which is characterized by its anti-nationalist and anti-Zionist content,” he continued.

Heading the department is Dr. Neve Gordon, who has repeatedly called for an international academic, cultural and economic boycott of Israel.

“Our aim isn’t to harm the university and we are not against academic freedom. We simply believe that the views should be balanced. It’s all a question of measure,” said Shoval.

In an interview with the Post, Ben Gurion University President Professor Rivka Karmi spoke about the department, Im Tirtzu’s threats and the dangers of uncritical higher education.

This week you decided to make the existence of the Im Tirtzu letter public. What were your reasons?
Initially, I had no intention to respond to the letter and to its authors, but I knew that it would eventually make it into the public sphere. The letter doesn’t deserve the dignity of being responded to. It is meaningless. I receive letters from all sorts of people and groups regularly and I have no obligation to respond to them. The only reason this letter made any impact is because of the context within which it was written and the nature and history of the group that wrote it. The attack on academic freedom is something that is in the public awareness. It is being taken seriously and was discussed both in the Knesset and in the Council for Higher Education (CHE).

What do you think about Im Tirtzu?
 I support the public expression of values. Any organization that has a value-based ideological vision is a positive thing. The only question is what they do to promote that vision. I believe that what Im Tirtzu does to promote their agenda is wrong and dangerous and that it should be stopped.

Is there any truth in Im Tirtzu’s claims? Is the department too leftist?
I can’t properly respond to their blanket accusations.
While I can point to their mistakes or answer each of their “factual claims,” I can’t and don’t want to dignify their attacks with an answer. Their basic premise is so off the mark and so misguided that answering them would automatically defeat the argument. I don’t owe explanations to extremist political organizations who are trying to promote an agenda. The university courses and curriculums are regularly audited by the CHE. They conduct frequent and regular inspections of all the university departments.
They present us with comments and recommendations and we analyze them and make adjustments accordingly.

Most of the group’s ire is aimed at the faculty and especially at its head Neve Gordon, who has publicly called for a boycott of Israel. Others have said he should be fired. What is your response?
I’ve made my position on Neve Gordon’s call for a boycott clear in the past. I think it is wrong and I condemn it out of hand. I think it has nothing to do with academic freedom, but the fact that I condemn his statements doesn’t mean I can fire him. You cannot fire someone for their political opinions. If the legislature passes a law that says otherwise, we will respect the law, but we will take no further action while it is against the law. The university’s faculty members are loyal. They go on reserve duty, they know the country and its history, and they came to teach here out of an ideology, a desire to strengthen the Negev. The department in question is one of the most popular departments in the university. Student enrollment has gone up consistently in recent years. We can’t even admit all the applicants to the Politics and Government Department. There is a long waiting list to be admitted.

Im Tirtzu suggested that donors who are concerned about the department can submit their contributions to a trust fund and that the money will only be released once changes are made to the staff and syllabus. What are your thoughts about this?
The initiative they proposed, that they would handle donor’s contributions through a trust fund, is not new. I’ve heard those kinds of threats before. It doesn’t worry me. I know the donors and have talked to them. They are aware of the accusations, but they are also aware of what drives them.

Are you worried that some of the donors will follow their advice?
Our donors are important to us, they are the ones who make it possible for us to realize our vision – Ben Gurion’s vision. In my meetings with donors, some expressed concerns and asked questions about Im Tirtzu’s claims, but I think that my answers put them at ease. Our donors are smart. If they weren’t they wouldn’t be in a position where they could afford to contribute. They also know their history. Many of our donors come from the United States and they remember the McCarthy era and the power that empty accusations had in those times.

Is that where you think we’re going?
In the current atmosphere I am sure that these kind of things will repeat themselves. The most important thing we can do is keep focused on our work; continue to do research and create knowledge.

Universities are part of the cultural elite, and like it or not, that elite is necessary. Part of our job is to challenge existing paradigms and ask difficult questions, even if they bother some of the people. It is important to us that the students be critical and express their opinions. Critical thought is a cornerstone of academic scholarship.

Nothing new or trailblazing can be discovered without asking difficult questions. What people do in their free time, outside the university, is their own concern. We have never checked the political beliefs of faculty members and would not dream of doing so. If things were like that, I wouldn’t want to be here. My request from faculty members is that they don’t link between their private work and their university work. There are people who do and say things that I abhor, but like Voltaire, I will defend to the death their right to say it.



What lessons can be taken from this whole affair?
I can’t stress this enough. I want any student who feels threatened to come directly to me. I promise them complete protection. If anyone feels that a faculty member is silencing them, belittling their opinions, putting them down or intimidating them, I want them to tell me about it immediately.

I am sorry that there are students who instead of approaching the university management with their concerns or complaints, choose to go to a group like Im Tirtzu. I promise you that they are not more Zionistic than I am. The sad thing is that they use the values of Zionism and Nationalism as a tool to promote an extreme political agenda. While I am pleased to see people act out of ideology and not out of the all too familiar economic drives, it is unacceptable that they use Zionism as a weapon to silence people they disagree with.

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