We live in an age shaped by ratings. Newspapers are always looking for that sexy headline that will sell papers or drive people to link to their pages, becoming ever more superficial as our lives devolve into a world of sound bites and shallow, sensational stories.
Bloggers become pundits as they create their own discourse online. Overhead is low. Responsibility and accountability are minimal. And impact and audience are far wider than anyone could have imagined. It is in this environment that so-called “watch-dog” groups are able to attract far more attention than they would have five or 10 years ago.
Just as the president of the United States recently found himself with no choice but to counter rumors about his real birth location that were “out there” in the blogosphere, so I find myself – as both the President of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the head of the Committee of University Presidents of Israel – forced to respond publicly to those “monitoring” groups who claim Israeli universities are home to “anti- Zionists” who are “politically indoctrinating” students.
Over the past 12 months, these socalled monitoring groups have changed
tactics, calling on friends of Israeli universities and members of their
boards of governors to withhold funding until the universities take
action against members who support the international Boycott, Divestment
and Sanction (BDS) movement, and dismiss those lecturers whom these
groups define as “anti-Zionist” or “enemies of the State of Israel.”
These kinds of blanket accusations distort the real situation at Israeli
universities, and do a disservice to the thousands of students, faculty
and staff dedicated to promoting the highest levels of research and
Among the nearly 5,000 full-time senior academics currently working in
this country – and who are responsible for one of the highest rates of
scientific publication in the world – less than 10 (10 people, not 10%)
openly support the BDS movement. And let me stress: all the university
presidents and senior administrators actively denounce any such support,
in Israel and around the world. Ironically, those Israelis who do
support BDS – and who are used to being ignored by the mainstream
Israeli press – have gained international notoriety thanks in part to
online promotion by the very groups that condemn them.
The truth is that these monitoring groups claim to be motivated by a
love of Israel, but in fact they have a clear political agenda which
they are willing to advance using the age-old method of blackmail.
Either Israeli universities accept their conditions and “remove” those
people with whom they disagree, or they will encourage donors to cut off
These are the kinds of attacks that do not allow for critical thinking
or alternate perspectives, and have created an atmosphere in Israel
today such that pro-human rights groups are being dismissed as
“anti-Zionist,” only adding to the polarization of Israeli society.
These are the kinds of attacks that make for the sexy headlines, and
that have dominated the press coverage of Israeli universities for
years, but universities are not about headlines. They are about the
They are about the slow, painstaking research that goes into the writing
of a PhD dissertation or the publication of a scientific paper; about
the open exchange of ideas that encourage serious scholarship and
innovative thinking. Universities are about empowering students,
encouraging them to experience the excitement of discovery and
volunteering in the community. They are about pursuing state-of-the-art
scholarship and scientific knowledge with the world’s best and brightest
At the same time, given the ongoing and heated political debate in
Israel, all universities require faculty members to adhere to a strict
policy of leaving political discussions outside the classroom.
In January this year, the BGU Senate (comprised of university academic
staff) issued a declaration based on recommendations of the Ethics
Committee outlining specific guidelines for researchers, and requiring
them to clearly delineate between their academic work and political
activities. This document was the first of its kind in Israel, and other
universities are now considering following our example.
Israelis are known around the world for their loud, boisterous
character. The Talmud provides, in many ways, a detailed document that
chronicles a long history of public debate. This is what makes for a
strong democracy, albeit a noisy one.
Don’t let headlines and advertisements lead you astray. Visit an Israeli
university. Meet with the amazing students and faculty members who
embody the pioneering spirit that created and built this wonderful
country. They are the real Zionists: Israel’s hope and best bet for the
future.The writer is president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.