Think About It: Keeping politics out of the universities

Not surprisingly most of those who reject the code are secular left-wingers or liberals, who feel that the current Israeli government is “out to get them.”

June 12, 2017 20:52
4 minute read.
Students sit in a library at the Ariel University Center in the West Bank settlement of Ariel

Students sit in a library at the Ariel University Center in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)


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The latest furor in the academic world involves the code of ethics prepared by Prof. Asa Kasher – Israel’s Mr. Ethics (he wrote the code of ethics for the IDF and was involved in preparing proposals for new codes of ethics for the government and the Knesset, that were never adopted) – at the request of Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

Next month the Council for Higher Education, which sets the basic rules for Israel’s institutions of higher education, will decide whether to adopt the controversial code, which bears the title “A code of ethics for appropriate conduct in the overlapping spheres of academic and political activity,” or leave things as they are.

As is evident from the mouthful of a title, the proposed code is not a classic code of ethics, and does not deal with such issues as the proper relations between teaching staff and students, the prevention of plagiarism, or full transparency regarding the sources of funding for research projects.

It has to do with politics in academia. Not university politics, but such issues as preventing the expression in the classroom of political views by the teaching staff, preventing the political views of candidates from affecting their chances of obtaining academic appointments and promotions, and preventing the political views of students affecting their grades.

The issue of preventing teaching staff from expressing political views in the classroom, and proposed limitations on their freedom to engage in political activity, is primarily what all the rumpus is about, under the more general title of “freedom of expression.”

After defining legitimate academic activity, Kasher goes on in his proposal to define political activity as “(a) any activity which involves the direct support of a political party that is represented in the Knesset or publicly active, or which involves direct and explicit opposition to such a party; (b) any activity which involves the direct support of a representative of a party in the Knesset, or of anyone who has a clear link to it, as such, or which involves direct and explicit opposition to such a person, as such; (c) any activity which involves direct support for a certain position in a known public controversy, which manifests itself over time in the Knesset and in the public discourse, in a clear link to a party or parties in the Knesset or outside of it, or direct and explicit opposition to such a position.”

Now, the predominance of certain political points of view in publicly funded institutions of higher education is a known and, in the opinion of many, an undesirable phenomenon. Certain Israeli universities are viewed as hotbeds of radical left-wing activism, while others are known to be right-wing and/or religious hotbeds. Some might say that it is not surprising that Mordechai Vanunu, who divulged information about Israel’s nuclear capability and was imprisoned for this, studied at Beersheba University, or that Yigal Amir, who assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, studied at Bar-Ilan University.

In the past it was very difficult for anyone from the Right to get an academic appointment in the faculty of social sciences and the humanities at the Hebrew University. Today it is much less so.

The phenomenon of lecturers and professors expressing their political beliefs and preferences openly and bluntly in the classroom, even when these have nothing or very little to do with the course subject matter, is also well known, and students may feel deterred, cowed or dejected by it.

The proposed code of ethics seeks to put an end, or at least to greatly curtail, all of these phenomena, and ensure that lecturers remain as neutral as possible with regard to all controversial issues, though this is not always possible or reasonable. For example, no one seriously expects someone giving a course on Darwin’s theory of evolution to also present the case for creationism in more than a few sentences, and no one expects someone teaching liberal economic theory to also go into Marxist economic theories – even if these two issues may be considered controversial in certain circles.

The reality, of course, is not straightforward and simple, and at least part of the fiery opposition does not come from academics who want to continue to express their political views, or even biased opinions, everywhere, and at any time.

Not surprisingly most of those who reject the code are secular left-wingers or liberals, who feel that the current Israeli government is “out to get them.” Efforts to delegitimize human rights organizations and activities, attempts to condition public financial support for cultural activities on agreement to perform in Judea and Samaria (i.e. “occupied territories”) and attempts to introduce all sorts of censorship rules that are associated with right-wing or religious beliefs make Israel’s left-wingers and liberals extremely suspicious of new rules that they perceive (rightly or wrongly) as being designed to hurt them.

Furthermore, it is argued that though there are left-wingers among the staff of Ariel University in Samaria, the mere existence of this university in territories that are not part of Israel’s sovereign territory is a blatant right-wing political statement and activity, which the new code of ethics will have no effect over.

Furthermore, the rules of ethics will not apply to the rabbis who teach at “high yeshivot” that receive public funding, many of whom openly express highly controversial political views, inside and outside the walls of their institutions.

But apparently the opponents of the code don’t have too much to worry about, since it is believed that there is a majority in the Council of Higher Education who agree with them. We shall see.

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