In The Jerusalem Post of April, 17 my colleague Professor David Newman, Dean of
the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University, sought –
in a personal capacity – to exploit the celebration of the Pessah festival in
order to draw attention to what he claimed are dark forces seeking to trample on
academic freedom – and more generally upon freedom of expression – in the State
At his own university he claimed that “right-wing activists,”
unhappy with the political views of some faculty members, had been conducting
“concerted and well-planned attacks” with a view, ultimately, to curtailing the
academic freedom of certain BGU faculty, and even of having them
“Were it not [Professor Newman declared] for the employment
laws of the state relating to tenure, there is a growing feeling among the
faculty that some could have been dismissed for expressing their
On March 28 last, it was my great privilege to deliver a public
lecture at BGU on “Intellectual Freedom and Academic Obligation.”
manner of speaking, I had in fact invited myself. Last year I contacted Dr. Neve
Gordon, who teaches in Professor Newman’s faculty, and offered to debate him, at
BGU, on issues related to the BDS campaign (of which Dr. Gordon appears to be a
) and academic freedom. To my great sorrow, Dr. Gordon declined
my invitation, claiming he was “not interested.”
notwithstanding, I contacted the president of BGU, Dr. Rivka Carmi, and it was
through her good offices that my lecture was arranged.
pressure of official business meant that Professor Newman was not able to hear
in person the remarks I made to that packed seminar room in March. Had he been
present he would have heard me draw a sharp distinction between academic freedom
and academic license. Devotees of academic license (I am not one of them)
believe that an academic should be free to say more or less anything on more or
less any subject. The concept seems to me to be deeply flawed.
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with, no academic is above the law. An academic who – shall we say – incites
violence can expect both criminal and institutional penalties – criminal because
of the law of the land and institutional because an academic who incites
violence brings her or his institution into disrepute. Even for those with
tenure, the charge of bringing the employing institution into disrepute can
customarily result in dismissal. And quite apart from this, there is the issue
of defamation. Can an academic legitimately claim that he should be able to –
say – libel or slander a colleague without hindrance? Of course not! So academic
freedom is not academic license.
In 1988, the British Parliament defined
academic freedom as the freedom for academics “to question and test received
wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions
without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs.”
To those of
us who took part in the discussions that resulted in this statutory formulation,
the wording was not ideal, but I think most agreed that the formulation could
only be applied to a peacetime situation.
In peacetime, an academic
should indeed be free to criticize, castigate, chastise and/or condemn not just
the government of the country in which he lives and works, but the country
itself. This freedom cannot be claimed when the country is at war and its very
survival is at issue.
In my March 28 lecture I deliberately spent some
time considering freedom in general and academic freedom in particular with
reference to the United Kingdom during the Second World War. I explained that
between 1939 and 1945, habeas corpus had been suspended – people were imprisoned
without trial ( including one sitting member of Parliament).
liberties were heavily circumscribed.
The “Home Guard” – a sort of
militarized police force – could and did shoot people dead on
There was comprehensive censorship of the media.
academics most certainly could not say what they liked, if for no other reason
than that the law of the land prescribed draconian penalties (including hanging)
for offenses deemed by the courts to fall within the definition of treason. This
definition included consorting with the enemy, inciting, aiding and abetting the
enemy, and engaging in any act likely to give comfort to the
ISRAEL IS at war. Muslim states, both Arab and non- Arab, have
made it crystal clear that they wish to destroy the Jewish state. Even as I flew
out to Israel from London, dozens of rockets were slamming into Israel from Gaza
– to say nothing of the Jerusalem bus station bombing. In this deplorable
situation I would have thought it the duty of every Israeli academic – no matter
his/her party-political outlook – to think very seriously about whether anything
they say or do is likely to give comfort to the many enemies of Israel.
must also point out that the BDS movement is itself at odds with the very
concept of academic freedom, since it seeks to make the espousal of a particular
set of political principles the price for entry into that academic dialogue
which is at the very heart of what we mean by a university.
my views” – it says – “or I will boycott you and freeze you out of the
In this sense I believe that the movement is essentially
totalitarian, and indeed fascist in nature. It has no place – none at all – in a
true university environment.
Argue by all means. But boycott and betray
at your peril.The writer is Michael Gross Professor of Politics &
Contemporary History and Sub-Dean of the School of Humanities at the University
of Buckingham (United Kingdom) and Patron of the UK Council on Academic Freedom.
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