On November 2nd, 2010, the Knesset’s Education Commission hosted a special hearing under the title: “The Exclusion of Zionistic Positions in Academia.” The event was chaired by MK Zevulun Orlev and attended, among others, by Education Minister Gideon Saar, by members of Knesset from various political parties, by high-ranking representatives of Israeli universities, by Israeli NGOs and by ordinary citizens.
Two Israeli NGOs, the Institute for Zionist Strategies (IZS) and Im Tirtzu, were asked to present the main conclusions of their study on what they claim to be the growingly post-Zionistic narratives of Israel’s political science and sociology departments. In October 2010, the IZS published a 122 page document called “Post-Zionism in Academia.” Im Tirtzu, for its part, published in May 2010 a 64 page document called “Anti-Zionistic Incitement and Bias in Universities.” Both publications include an extensive review of syllabi, and both reach the conclusion that students are mostly taught a one-sided and derogatory description of nationalism in general and of Zionism in particular. Im Tirtzu’s report also includes testimonies of students about what they claim to be the one-sidedness and political intolerance of their professors, as well as a review of the political petitions signed by Israeli academics.
Instead of addressing the issues raised by the IZS and by Im Tirtzu, Israel’s academic establishment has reacted with scorn and arrogance. At the Knesset hearing, BGU Rector Prof. Zvi Hacohen interrupted the IZS’s presentation, calling it “nonsense” and claiming (without proving it) that the IZS’s paper does meet the most basic criteria of academic research. Tel-Aviv University Rector Prof. Aharon Shai also claimed that the IZS’s paper is not a research paper (without explaining why) and added that adopting an academic ethical code (as proposed by Education Minister Gideon Saar at the beginning of the hearing) would “destroy Israeli Academia.”
Members of Knesset, for their part, were divided. Meretz MKs Haim Oron and Nitzav Horowitz claimed that the alleged political bias of Israel’s political science departments should be discussed at the Higher Education Committee (HEC) and not at the Knesset. To which Kadima MK Ronit Tirosh replied that expecting the HEC to discuss the issue is naïve at best and hypocritical at worst: since the HEC is mostly composed of University professors, it automatically circles the wagons around its peers. Tirosh, of course, could have added that, as the body that represents tax-paying citizens, the Knesset is entitled to check if the tax money it levies from citizens and transfers to universities is used to pay the salaries of professors who call for the international boycott of Israel.
Two days after the Knesset hearing, Ha’aretz came out to the defense of the universities by claiming that adopting an ethical code would harm academic freedom. Ha’aretz wrote that Gideon Saar proposed such a code as a result of the lobbying of Im Tirtzu. But, in fact, the idea of an academic ethical code for Israel was first proposed by Prof. Amnon Rubinstein, himself a renowned Israeli academic with impeccable liberal credentials. Moreover, BGU does have an ethical code (it is the only Israeli university to have one). Did BGU adopt an ethical code to “destroy Israeli Academia?”
Amnon Rubinstein advocates the adoption of an ethical code for Israeli universities in his article “Academic Freedom of Expression” to be published this month in the IDC’s journal Law and Business (a draft of the article is posted on Rubinstein’s personal website). The article addresses, among other things, the question as to whether calls from certain Israeli academics to boycott Israel are part of academic freedom of expression.
Rubinstein argues that professors enjoy a special status because their students have to listen to them and take their exams in order to succeed (certainly for mandatory classes). So professors have obligations precisely because they have privileges. Rubinstein is of the opinion that there is no appropriate legal mechanism in Israel to ensure that professors do not abuse their freedom of expression and do respect the obligations that stem from their privileges.
Thus does Rubinstein recommend the adoption of an academic ethical code in Israel in order to clearly define what constitutes and what does not constitute academic freedom of expression. In the United States, such a code was adopted in 1940 by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and it has been revised and updated ever since. The AAUP’s code states, among other things, that professors “should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others.”
Those in Israel who oppose the adoption of an academic ethical code would do a service to the public debate by presenting sound arguments instead of claiming that such a code would “destroy Israeli Academia” and that Gideon Saar is a pawn of Im Tirtzu. Until they do, one will have reasonable reasons to assume that they have a problem with accuracy, restraint, and respect for the opinions of others.