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.
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
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.
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
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?
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?
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
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
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
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
student who feels threatened to come directly to me. I promise them
protection. If anyone feels that a faculty member is silencing them,
their opinions, putting them down or intimidating them, I want them to
about it immediately.
I am sorry that there are students who instead of
approaching the university management with their concerns or complaints,
to go to a group like Im Tirtzu. I promise you that they are not more
than I am. The sad thing is that they use the values of Zionism and
as a tool to promote an extreme political agenda. While I am pleased to
people act out of ideology and not out of the all too familiar economic
it is unacceptable that they use Zionism as a weapon to silence people
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