I have never had the occasion to meet Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, but he
entered my life in two very different ways during this past week.
first instance was when he attended the meeting of the Council for Higher
Education for its much publicized debate about the professional reports relating
to the country’s departments of political science, following the recommendations
of the international committee.
As faculty dean, and one of the two
founders of the Politics and Government Department at Ben-Gurion University, I
obviously had an interest in the outcome of the meeting. One of my
responsibilities is to read the professional reports of all of the international
committees – about five disciplines are chosen each year for review – and,
together with my colleagues and university rector, to implement the
recommendations and conclusions of these reports.
The second occasion was
when Sa’ar visited the community of Meitar, north of Beersheba, to attend the
opening of the new building of the national religious school, Hemdat, in which
all four of my children were students at one point. I was almost a founder of
this school, moving to this community just one year after the school had been
founded, at a time when it operated out of an uninhabited house and before it
had received formal recognition from the Ministry of Education.
journalist present at the school dedication ceremony asked the minister why he
was so intent on making political accusations against an academic department
which was, according to the press, overloaded with left-wing opinions, but never
made any similar statements about the right-wing nationalism which is often
apparent in the national religious school system.
That would include the
institutions that spawned Yigal Amir, such as the national religious school
system or even Bar Ilan University, which has been accused by some academics of
preventing the appointment or promotion of lecturers with left-wing
It was perhaps an inappropriate question at the dedication
ceremony of a new school building, but the minister’s blatant political
intervention of late in academia made it highly relevant.
Sa’ar, who by
default is also the head of the Council for Higher Education, rarely attends the
meetings of that body, but he made a point of doing so last Wednesday when the
committee reports on the departments of political science were being discussed.
Then, he steered the discussion in the direction that he chose and then, as soon
as the report on Ben-Gurion University was completed, got up and left.
was clear to all those present that his presence at the meeting had been for the
sole purpose of attacking political views with which he did not agree via the
manipulation of so-called academic and professional guidelines.
surprising in this particular incident is that almost no one, including the
minister, had actually read the report. Instead, they relied on
sensationalist headlines in the press which were based on leaked, partial copies
of the report. Anyone actually taking the time to read the 20-page report will
immediately see that there is no connection whatsoever between the political
affiliations of some of the faculty members to the future functioning of the
The major criticism of the committee was that a department
with so few full-time faculty (nine) should be fulfilling so many functions,
including the teaching of the Europe Studies program (the Jean Monnet Chair in
European Studies), the administration of the African Studies program, the
teaching of the BA program to the air force pilots and the International MA
program on the Politics of Conflict.
At the same time, with an annual
recruitment of 150 undergraduate students along with growing numbers of research
and postgraduate students, the committee recommended that the department receive
at least three or four new fully tenured positions to cope with the workload;
otherwise the functioning of the department would have to be reconsidered and it
would probably have to close some programs due to lack of manpower.
of the 20 pages, about three sentences are devoted to accusations of political
bias. After interviewing faculty and students and also perusing the course
curricula, the committee concluded that there is an open and free exchange of
ideas at the university, that alternative views between faculty and students are
fully tolerated and that there is absolutely no evidence that the political
views of individual faculty members are forced upon students or that their views
influence the academic debate.
WHOEVER LEAKED the report to the press
clearly had a political agenda. It is unheard of for such reports to be leaked
or publicized before the CHE has an opportunity to discuss them. And the way in
which it was leaked, partially and with false information and highlights,
clearly was intended to create a hostile public atmosphere prior to the meeting
of the CHE. The report will be the subject of a specially convened meeting of
the Knesset Education Committee tomorrow – and it is clear that this has very
little to do with education, but a great deal to do with politics.
idea that universities appoint faculty according to their political opinions is
the most ridiculous of all the accusations. Anyone who has the slightest
knowledge of the appointment and promotion process (be it at Ben Gurion or Bar
Ilan) will know that this is a tortuous process, demanding a thorough review of
the candidate’s academic and professional competence, his research achievements,
his publication record and letters and recommendations which are received from
academic peers throughout the world.
The selection committees are
composed of diverse faculty members, from different disciplines and with a
variety of political views, none of which are ever brought to bear in the highly
professional discussions and decisions.
Of course, right-wing groups such
as Im Tirtzu, Academic Monitor and IsraCampus have had a field day. They argue
that the reports published in the media have vindicated their arguments about
political bias within the country’s universities and particularly the Sociology
and Political Science Departments.
Their ongoing, well-funded war of
attrition against freedom of debate and academic freedom is slowly destroying
Israel’s democracy and leading academic friends around the world to think twice
before developing research links with Israeli universities and academics.
Academics who have refused up until now to be part of the boycott campaign are
now turning against Israel because of the country’s growing international image
as a place where people, and now entire departments, with the “wrong” political
views are being silenced and threatened by the activities of these extremist
One only has to see the letter sent to BGU by the
president of the prestigious Middle East Studies Association this week to see
the harm that is being caused to Israel’s universities as a result of such
policies and political pressures.
The Minister of Education has walked
into the trap which the right-wing groups laid for him. Unless, that is, he
himself is an active supporter of these dangerous trends. His activities this
past week would suggest that this may indeed be the case.
The writer is
Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion
University. The views expressed are his alone.