Right-wing group Im Tirzu threatens BGU donations

Ben-Gurion University: Efforts by Im Tirtzu "reek of McCarthyism."

ben gurion university building 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ben gurion university building 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ben-Gurion University on Tuesday released the contents of a letter in which right-wing student group Im Tirtzu threatened to try and convince donors to stop contributing to the university unless university president Rivka Karmi showed she was taking concrete actions to remedy what they perceive as a leftwing bias in the university’s Politics and Government Department.
The publication sparked a storm of public and media responses surrounding the issue of academic freedom and financial boycotts of universities.
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Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar categorically rejected any attempts to block or condition donations to Israeli universities, while a former BGU president, Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman, warned that threats like Im Tirtzu’s were leading the country into a period of McCarthyism that threatened Israel democracy.
The letter, which was sent to Karmi a month ago, stipulates that unless she met their demands within a month, Im Tirtzu would, “Use all the legal means at our disposal to bring to the attention of the present and future student body and especially to the university’s supporters in Israel and abroad, the severity of the situation and the ongoing disregard by university management that allowed things to arrive at their current state.
“We will request that all the donors submit their contributions to a trust fund managed by a lawyer, to be released to the university after it is factually proved that the bias that exists in the department, as expressed in the faculty make-up and the syllabus content, is remedied,” added the letter.
Im Tirtzu director Ronen Shoval told The Jerusalem Post said that the group’s research had found that BGU’s Politics and Government Department stood out from all the other political science departments in the country as being the most left-wing.
Shoval said that the group had received complaints from students that their instructors were only exposing them to extreme Left positions and that efforts by students to balance the dialogue were rebuked by the faculty.
“The department has 11 faculty members, of whom nine are involved in political activities that present extreme leftist positions,” said Shoval.
“Six out of the 11 faculty members have signed a petition calling on soldiers to refuse to serve in the West Bank. Two research fellows are known to have anti- Zionist beliefs. Eight out of 19 external lecturers express radical leftist positions and our research shows that there is a sharp slant in the program’s syllabus, which is characterized by its anti-nationalist and anti-Zionist content,” he continued.
“Heading the department is Dr. Neve Gordon, who has repeatedly called for an international academic, cultural and economic boycott of Israel.
“Our aim isn’t to harm the university and we are not against academic freedom.
We simply believe that the views should be balanced. It’s all a question of measure. Just like there can’t be 100 percent males in the workplace. It can’t be that only one side is heard in the classroom.
We are willing to acknowledge that anti-Zionist sentiments are present in the university, but refuse to accept that it should be forced down the students’ throats,” said Shoval.
“We are in contact with some of BGU’s donors and we know they are concerned about the situation. Since we don’t want to harm the university’s funding, we are offering an alternative for concerned donors. Instead of sending the money directly to the university, they can contribute the money to a trust fund and we’ll make sure it is only donated after we see that a real and honest effort to correct the situation is under way.”
When asked about the identity of the lawyer who would manage the trust fund and on the criteria for transferring the money, Shoval said that they had yet to decide on a lawyer and that the criteria would be drawn up with the donors themselves.
When asked whether he thought Neve Gordon should be fired, Shoval said that he expected a person who called for a boycott of his own university, to show integrity and resign.
Shoval characterized Im Tirtzu as a non-partisan NGO.
“Most of our work involves volunteering on campuses. We are not linked to any political party but we are passionately Zionist. Our views represent the center, but they are adamant.”
He said that Im Tirtzu’s activities were funded by private contributions from Israel and abroad.
In response to Im Tirtzu’s letter, BGU released a statement saying that the university was not in the habit of conducting regular examinations of its faculty’s political views.
“Demands that we do so or demands that we ‘balance’ faculty members according to political views, reek of McCarthyism and stand in direct opposition to the democratic values Israel is based on,” read the statement.
“Members of the aforementioned organization refuse to let facts get in their way. They themselves represent an extreme political position, attacking and demonizing anyone whose opinions are unacceptable to them… “Just as university president, Professor Rivka Karmi, sharply condemned elements calling for a boycott of Israel, so does the university sharply condemn any element that calls for a boycott of universities, because of this or that opinion of a faculty member,” read the statement.
Karmi told the Post that the Council for Higher Education regularly examined all of the university’s curricula and that it was the only body she was required to answer to.
“They present us with comments and recommendations and we analyze them and make adjustments accordingly. I don’t owe explanations to extremist political organizations who are trying to promote an agenda,” she said.
Karmi said she knew and trusted that the donors were intelligent enough and cared enough about the university, to see Im Tirtzu’s threat for what it was and continue to give generously to the institution.
“Many of our donors live in the United States and know where initiatives like Im Tirtzu’s can take us. The donors are very important to us. They are the ones who enable our vision to become a reality, the same vision that was inspired by prime minister David Ben-Gurion himself.”
Braverman, who stood at the head of BGU for 16 years, condemned Im Tirtzu’s attacks against it.
“Ben-Gurion University is a symbol of modern Zionism. Harming the university is harming Zionism itself and a crossing of red lines. While it may look innocent, what these people are doing now is characteristic of dark regimes,” said Braverman.
“I know the faculty at BGU; 95% of them have opinions that place them as center-right or center-left. Another 5% hold extreme views in either direction,” he continued.
“The majority of the faculty members are people who live and breathe Zionism. They came out to the desert to help build a university from all over Israel and all over the world.
There may be individuals who abuse their position and call for boycotts on Israel, and the president [Karmi] knows my opinions about that, but any attempt to harm academic freedom should be snuffed out immediately,” said Braverman.