Ahead of the Council for Higher Education’s decision to close Ben-Gurion University’s political science department, Prof. David Newman, dean of the Faculty for Human and Social Sciences, said the department is prepared to take legal action if the council does not cancel its decision.
“There’s going to be a meeting in the MALAG [Israeli CHE], where the university presents its case to demonstrate that the professional considerations of the sub-committee were wrong,” Newman said.
“Most of the senior political scientists in Israel and the world back up the university’s case, and we hope that the necessary mutual compromise will be reached.”
He added: “There is a strong possibility that if this is not resolved, the university will take the Council for Higher Education to court, which will be a first in the history of Israel’s higher education and would not be to the benefit of Israel’s scientific and academic standing.”
MALAG decided last month to close the political science program after investigating claims made by right-wing organizations such as Zionist NGO Im Tirzu, which said its faculty was teaching students radical leftist political opinions. Im Tirzu also called the program “unbalanced” and “very disturbing.”
The decision will be reconsidered next week.
Department head Haim Yacobi responded that “the claims are very well-engineered, I would say, by groups who have a political agenda...It’s okay to have a political agenda, there is nothing wrong with that. But the problem is that their strategy has been adopted by people who have official responsibility.”
Their truth is taken as a fact, he added, but has no basis in reality.
“We shouldn’t be naive, it’s part of a wider agenda.”
Yacobi, who took up his position two months ago and has been dealing with the controversy ever since, explained that he does not believe that MALAG will shut down the department – an opinion which his staff and faculty members share. “It cannot happen. We can be very critical toward Israel’s politics, but we are not at a stage where a department at a university can be closed because of political interest – and I hope we never reach this point,” he said.
“Closing a department because of political reasons is a very, very dangerous thing to do,” added Yacobi.
He expressed his frustration with the current situation and stated he is very proud of the achievements of the political science department.
Regarding the attacks on his faculty members, Yacobi said: “To be honest, I really don’t care what my colleagues are doing after they are teaching here or whatever they’re doing on the weekend.
“I think if we reach a stage where I would judge the work of my colleagues or my students according to their political, social affiliations, it will be a very dark moment,” he added.
Lynn Schler, who teaches African studies at the department, said that even though her course is not being directly criticized, she still feels the scrutiny.
“It feels incredibly like ‘Big Brother’ monitoring,” she said. “This sort of house cleaning on the basis of who falls in line with certain visions of what can and should be said, that’s what worries me, the ‘thought police.’” Students in the program, Lior Levin and Liraz Yaffe, said they feel they are receiving a “mind-opening” education and are exposed to “a broad spectrum of approaches.”
“Even if we are aware that some of our professors have a certain background, we don’t see it in class, they stick to the syllabus. Personally, I’ve never heard a lecturer express a political opinion in a clear way,” Levin said.
“Our teachers shouldn’t feel like they are walking on eggshells and be afraid to say things,” Yaffe, a third-year student, said.
Although she supports her professors, Yaffe said she is still concerned about the consequences of the controversy.
“I’m worried that when I’m going to look for a job, my degree will be less valued than the same one from another university.”
Disagreement with the department’s teaching methods does not only come from external groups, however. BGU Professors Israel David, of the industrial engineering and management department, and Dan Censor, of the electrical and computer engineering department, have openly expressed their critiques of the program.
“I don’t want the department to close, but I am in favor of kicking out malignant elements,” said David, specifically pointing to Prof.
Neve Gordon, who is known for his radical left-wing political opinions and is currently on sabbatical at Princeton University in the US.
According to David, Gordon has often mentioned the term “apartheid” when talking about Israel. “I’m not against the department because I’m Zionist, that’s not what makes me get involved in this at the age of 50-something. The reason is, and I hope this will be heard, that I am fed up with people pissing on my head. There are a few people here that piss on everyone, on this university,” he said.
David also said that the department’s website states its goal as helping students bring about “economic and political change.”
“That is not the mission statement of a university program,” he said. “It’s the platform of a political party.”
He further discussed the department’s threat to take the issue to court, saying the money that would go toward such an action would be taken at the expense of other important university initiatives.
Censor, for his part, said: “I see the whole department as accomplices in the offense. I think they are in a status of ‘useful idiots,’ they are contributing in destroying their own environment.”
Whatever the MALAG’s decision, he said, it will be significant and “will change the face of Israeli academia in Israel for the better.”
Censor added that the idea to sue CHE is “absurd” and “surrealist.”
David and Censor agree that the program’s methods and persistence in contradicting MALAG hurts the university’s reputation – and their jobs. Censor noted that he had been denied the opportunity to present research at a conference, and he is convinced it was due to the controversy.
“It’s a bleeding wound that will never close,” he said of the program.
The CHE is set to meet on Tuesday.
At the same time, students from the department are expected to protest in its favor in front of the building in Jerusalem.