A dangerous political agenda

The objective of organizations like Im Tirtzu has nothing to do with academic objectivity.

Ben Gurion University (photo credit: Dani Machlis/ BGU)
Ben Gurion University
(photo credit: Dani Machlis/ BGU)
Academic politics reached an intense peak last week, first with the circulation of a so-called research report by the selfstyled Institute for Strategic Zionism (ISZ), followed closely by the well-orchestrated media publication of the letter sent by the right-wing student organization Im Tirtzu to the president of Ben-Gurion University, Prof. Rivka Karmi. The draft ISZ report made a strong attack on the country’s sociology departments, accusing them of teaching and researching post-Zionism and anti-state theories. The Im Tirtzu letter accused the Politics Department at BGU of imposing leftwing theories and values on its students, and threatened Karmi that unless the university began to employ right-wing professors, it would persuade donors from abroad – especially North America – to cease donating.
These were not isolated incidents. The past few years have witnessed a growth in right-wing activity aimed at delegitimizing the country’s universities and their academic staff. To ISZ and Im Tirtzu can be added Isracampus and NGO Monitor, both of which have targeted academics and NGOs which hold views, or promote projects, which are not in line with their well-funded right-wing agendas.
The objective of these organizations is clear and has nothing to do with academic objectivity or balanced research. They are out to impose their own single-minded view of Israel and Zionism, close down any form of critical discourse and, given the nature of the present government, influence the legislators in the Knesset to support their cause.
The main problem with both the ISZ report and the Im Tirtzu letter is that they are full of false and highly selective information. ISZ, headed by former West Bank settlement leader Yisrael Harel, chose to focus on just a few research projects and courses out of the hundreds which are taught, conveniently ignoring the diversity of research which goes on in the country’s sociology and anthropology departments. The Im Tirtzu letter put out false information about a dynamic and highly popular academic department which promotes social and political awareness among its students.
This same department, most of whose faculty are immigrants from the West, who teach air force cadets and who head up the both the university’s center for European studies and the recently created African studies center, have been collectively labeled as anti-Zionist and traitors.
The political agenda of these organizations has become even clearer this past week as it has been revealed that, among other foreign donors, the ISZ has been funded by the right-wing Hudson Institute in the US, which has also funded activities of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s special security adviser and well-known political hawk, Dr. Uzi Arad. Im Tirtzu has been receiving designated financial aid from right-wing Christian Evangelist pastor John Hagee, channeled through the due diligence of the Jewish Agency who do not see this as problematic.
RIGHT-WING GROUPS do not like it when they are accused of McCarthyism. But when you try to influence the hiring (and firing) policy of universities based on political views, that is McCarthyism. And when you plant people in classes and at conferences to write false reports about what is discussed to further your political agenda and create a sense of fear among students, this is McCarthyism. And when you try to intervene in the curriculum in a highly selective fashion, this is McCarthyism. When you portray anyone who doesn’t agree with you as being anti-state, abetting the enemy and not sufficiently patriotic, this is McCarthyism – pure and simple.
The senior academic establishment has finally awakened to the danger. Clear statements have been made by the rectors and presidents of Haifa, Tel Aviv and Ben- Gurion universities. Over the weekend, the Joint University Committee of Academic Faculty, along with the Basha’ar think tank, both of which represent a wide range of academics with political views across the spectrum condemned the threat tactics of ISZ and Im Tirtzu and restated the basic principles of academic freedom.
And there is more to come. It is understood that now that the sociologists and political scientists have been dealt with, the next targeted groups are philosophers and Israeli historians. And there are plenty of journalists out there who are quite happy to publish this information without checking any of the facts, as has been so evident during the past week.
Universities exist not only to teach a profession. They also exist to make their students socially and politically aware, and actively involved in the debates concerning the society and state in which they live.
Without critical discourse and constant challenging of accepted theories, there would be little point in having social science and humanities faculties. And as long as the views which are taught do not break the law and do not incite violence, it is incumbent on our students and researchers to cover the broadest possible spectrum of views.
The fact that the country’s universities also house some of the most extreme right-wing professors, under the guise of the Professors for a Strong Israel organization, is conveniently forgotten by ISZ, Im Tirtzu and like-minded organizations. If you agree with them, you are a patriot (self-appointed), but if you hold a different opinion you are a traitor and should be fired.
Their assertion that only like-minded people are hired for academic positions is not only nonsensical, it is insulting to the country’s universities and research centers, which enjoy international prestige for the high quality of their research.
Over a period of almost 15 years I have been involved in the hiring and promotion of many academics, and I can state categorically that at no time has the political preferences or opinions of a candidate ever been part of the decision-making process. The quality of a person’s research, his/her international prestige and the recommendations received from academic peers are the sole criteria, and it is harmful and damaging to suggest anything else. It would indeed behoove our academic institutions to become more transparent about the promotion and tenure process so that this false argument could be buried once and for all.
Not only do ISZ and Im Tirtzu threaten freedom of expression and academic freedom, they are doing great harm to Israel’s reputation as a place of open debate and diversity of opinion. This damage is far greater than that caused by a small number of Israeli professors who have supported an academic boycott – a stance rejected by 99 percent of Israel’s academic community regardless of their political positions and opinions.
Of even greater concern is the fact that their activities are creating an environment in which both students and faculty, by their own admission, are beginning to feel afraid of voicing their own opinions and to feel physically threatened as well.
It is time for all those who believe in freedom of speech to stand up and voice their clear opposition to those who would try to deny it. The use of false and selective information by ISZ, Im Tirtzu and Isracampus, the atmosphere of threat which they are creating and their use of misinformed foreign donors to promote their political cause is finally being exposed for what it really is – a threat to the democratic fabric of a vibrant and dynamic State of Israel.
The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal, Geopolitics. He is also dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at BGU, one of the founders of the Department of Politics and Government – the target of the Im Tirtzu report – and has represented Israel’s universities in the UK against all attempts to impose an academic boycott.