On academic freedom – two aspects

Im Tirtzu’s charges, though presented in a reprehensible manner, should be investigated by a responsible and objective body, not a right-wing group.

ben gurion university building 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ben gurion university building 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As an immigrant from the United States some 36 years ago, I experienced two periods of interference with academic freedom during my life in America. The first was in the era of the infamous Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the second during the Maoist student protests during the Vietnam War.
No side on the political spectrum has a monopoly on attacks on academic freedom. As a matter of fact the official document on academic freedom issued in 2005 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities states that “today new challenges to academic freedom have arisen from both the Right and the Left.”
The recent threatening letter addressed by the Im Tirtzu organization to Rivka Karmi, president of Ben-Gurion University, appropriately caused uniform condemnation by the entire academic community in Israel. Albert Einstein, having experienced personally the results of government intimidation of academia, made an emotional plea that “pursuit of scientific truth... ought to be treated as sacred by every government, and it is in the highest interests of all that honest servants of truth should be left in peace.”
One can only echo his plea.
But in the unanimous condemnation of the crude threats made against BGU and other schools, there was unfortunately no real discussion of the issues raised by the letter, albeit in a crude and aggressive manner.
There is universal agreement that academic freedom means freedom of faculty members to engage freely in the pursuit of truth in their research and teaching. But the modern liberal university in a democratic society has a responsibility to expose students to a variety of competing ideas, to teach them to think independently, engage differences of opinion, evaluate evidence and form their own grounded judgments about the relative value of competing perspectives.
In its 2005 document Academic Freedom and Educational Responsibility, the Association of American Colleges and Universities warns that “some departments fail to assure that their curricula include the full diversity of legitimate intellectual perspectives appropriate to their discipline. And individual faculty members sometimes express their personal views to students in ways that intimidate them.”
Prof. Amnon Rubinstein, in a forthcoming review article on freedom of speech and academic freedom, emphasizes the rights of academic freedom to which students are entitled. They must not be subjected to propaganda in their classes by teachers interested in pursuing their personal political ideology – be it of the Right or the Left.
I HAVE not investigated the correctness of the charges that students at various Israeli universities are being subjected to biased anti-Zionist syllabi. But if there is any truth to these charges, they represent serious breaches of academic freedom, a violation of student rights and a distortion of the kind of openness and pluralism that should characterize a university in a democratic society.
These charges, made in an offensive and reprehensible manner, will not disappear until they are investigated, not by Im Tirtzu or other groups identified with the political Right, but by a group universally accepted as responsible and objective.
The Israeli academic world must take the initiative as soon as possible by appointing a committee from within itself to investigate the charges. The committee should be composed of individuals whose integrity and objectivity are beyond reproach, and they must produce an in-depth analysis of the situation.
The academic community must not let the situation fester until politicians take the initiative and conduct investigations of their own; such an event will indeed constitute a serious blow to the much-desired independence of academia from political interference. If we in academia do not act now, we will have only ourselves to blame for political involvement in our universities.
The writer is professor emeritus in internal medicine at Ben-Gurion University and chairman of its ethics committee.