Israeli university lecturers should not push their politics - opinion

Administrations at universities in Israel have created a closed narrative on judicial reform by actively promoting protests against the government.

Tens of thousands of Israelis protests the government's judicial reform in Tel Aviv's Habima Square seen in this drone footage taken January 14, 2023 (photo credit: Amir Goldstein)
Tens of thousands of Israelis protests the government's judicial reform in Tel Aviv's Habima Square seen in this drone footage taken January 14, 2023
(photo credit: Amir Goldstein)

The role of universities in Israel may have been radically altered over the past two weeks and it may not be good for society or academia. Institutions of higher education serve a variety of functions in a technologically advanced democracy, such as Israel. They are tasked with imparting knowledge and raw facts to the next generation.

Facts alone are not enough and thus critical thinking skills and the tools to analyze said information is vital. Students must be taught to think for themselves, to retrieve and evaluate various kinds of evidence and to apply critical thinking so that they can understand for themselves and arrive at the truth.

Of course, the definition of truth or truths is discipline dependent. In physics, there is usually one truth, while in literature there can be several. But the environment must be such that students feel comfortable exploring ideas and expressing opinions, obviously with certain limitations. The standards for how and when personal opinions should be expressed may be different for faculty and for students, and recent messages sent by university administrations and individual faculty directly to their students have crossed the line.

For over two decades, I have been privileged to teach some of the brightest students in Israel in the Bar-Ilan University neuroscience program. My working assumption has been that the role of faculty is to teach information, thinking skills and analytical reasoning.

The institutions of higher learning are also there to provide an opportunity to be exposed to a range of thoughts and approaches as these young adults form their adult identities. It was always abundantly clear to me that our mission was not to attempt to mold the student in the image of the instructor, we were to assist in developing their intellect and permit them to develop as individuals.

 AT A demonstration in Tel Aviv, earlier this month, against the government’s plan for judicial change, signs read ‘The student protest’ and ‘Without democracy, there is no academia.’ (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) AT A demonstration in Tel Aviv, earlier this month, against the government’s plan for judicial change, signs read ‘The student protest’ and ‘Without democracy, there is no academia.’ (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

To use an example from my field, nature has provided a means of protecting the brain from foreign substances, known as the blood-brain barrier (BBB). It is a highly selective border designed to protect the brain cells by allowing certain needed substances to pass it and reach the neurons and at the same time preventing the crossing of pathogens and other substances from the blood into the region where the neurons live.

I ENVISIONED that universities maintained a metaphorical BBB in that our goal was to nourish the brain with facts and intellectual tools but not permit pathogens, i.e. our personal biases, to enter the student’s brain. I have consciously tried, and I always assumed that my colleagues did likewise, to keep my personal political, religious and philosophical opinions out of the classroom. I have fastidiously tried to maintain a neutral perspective in my classes and encounters with students.

The events of the last few weeks have shown me how wrong I was. Certain segments of the population have decided that the democratic nature of the state is currently under dire threat and that it is therefore appropriate for universities to share their political views, as well as for individual faculty members to use university means of communication to send political missives to students.

Pushing a narrative onto students

In numerous universities, the administration not only made unprecedented accommodations so that students could join the anti-government protests but actively encouraged it. They were not merely encouraging activism and political engagement – a commendable idea – but rather were promoting one side in a heated national debate. In addition, many individual professors have not only been directly telling students their political opinions but even encouraging them to adopt their political perspective.

These messages have made some faculty and students quite uncomfortable and afraid to voice a different opinion or even appear to be from the other side of the political map. And this has left students concerned for their grades and academic future. And these statements have destroyed a long-held status quo.

In the modern era, institutions of higher learning have recognized that in relationships between faculty and students, there is a difference in institutional power and that this carries with it an inherent risk of coercion. While this may be less true in informal Israel than in the US, it still exists.

This is why, for example, romantic relationships, even consensual, between faculty and students are barred. It seems to me that those emails, both from the institutions and from individual faculty, were intended to persuade and were precedent-setting violations of the sacred separation of academia from politics.

The need to protect the democratic nature of the state was cited as a justification but nonetheless, the fragile BBB has been pierced. We are no longer only feeding the brains of our students with facts and the scientific method but with one-sided opinions, as well.

In the spirit of concern for the preservation of the “Jewish and democratic” nature of the state, a slogan with which we are constantly bombarded, I would like to present some food for thought. Having taught a generation of students, it is clear to me that the Jewish nature of Israel is at grave risk.

THE INQUISITIVE and intellectually capable students that I daily meet in my classroom are not very well-versed in Jewish history, culture, law or tradition. They have had precious little exposure to either cerebral or experiential Judaism.

The justification that because of the perception that a core value of our country, democracy, is in danger, professors should transform from instructors to missionaries is frightening. They have been doing more than expressing opinions, they have been trying to influence students politically, to proselytize to them.

Using this precedent, one can now ostensibly justify trying to salvage the other great pillar of our nation, its Jewish character, which is under threat. It pains me to see the deterioration of Jewish aspects of the country and to meet so many young Jews who have been deprived of learning about their heritage, yet I have refrained from proselytizing my love of Judaism and the beauty of our traditions with my university students.

Thanks to the response to Justice Minister Levin’s proposed judicial reforms and this paradigm shift, the barriers seem to have fallen, the dam has burst and the BBB pierced. Those who feel that the democratic nature is in danger and that that justifies political coercion should have no complaints if others who feel that the Jewish nature is threatened are inclined to do the same regarding religion.

I think what was done was wrong and harmed the academic environment and the professor-student academic relationship. I would like to see those who broke the barriers reflect on this and re-erect them. That said, it does not detract from this real issue that I see daily: our extremely bright, motivated students who have less than a rudimentary knowledge of anything Jewish. And that is representative of what is happening in our Jewish and democratic country.

In order for these young adults to develop a Jewish identity for themselves as individuals and for the country in the future, society needs to do serious soul-searching to figure out ways to allow and encourage exposure to Jewish tradition and growth.

The writer is a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University.