Damaging Israel’s scientific reputation

Borderline Views: Much harm is being done to the name of Israel’s scientific community. The CHE must return to being a professional body, free from political ideologies and pressures.

Ben Gurion University (photo credit: Dani Machlis/ BGU)
Ben Gurion University
(photo credit: Dani Machlis/ BGU)
Many of us in Israeli academia have spent much of our time during the past five years rebutting attempts by foreign academics to impose an academic boycott on Israel. It has not been an easy task, but we are committed to this cause because we believe that academic boycotts are unethical, that they do not bring conflict resolution any closer and because, at least in some cases, the anti-Israel activism is often a disguise for the delegitimization of Israel and even anti-Semitism in some of the more extreme quarters.
The scientific reputation of Israel’s universities is second to none and those of us fighting the boycott emphasize the fact that there is no room for politics in the laboratories and classrooms of the academic world. So it is now deeply troubling that in the past month there has been a major international critique of Israel’s Council of Higher Education (CHE) by some of the largest and most important scientific associations throughout the world. Only this time, the criticism of Israel is coming from our friends, not our enemies. From those who undertake much scientific cooperation and collaboration with Israel, including many who have actively engaged in combating any form of boycott attempt by their more misguided colleagues.
It is even more troubling that this chorus of international opinion is a direct result of the policies of the CHE itself, resulting from the recommendation of its Quality Assessment subcommittee to prevent further registration of new students in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University. This recommendation appears, to most observers, to have been influenced by political, rather than professional, considerations, and raises serious questions concerning the role of the CHE in overseeing Israel’s universities.
In order not to appear to be politically motivated, this has all been disguised as part of a critical evaluation of the department by a committee of international experts. But before it even got down to work, the original committee was disbanded and “reorganized” for reasons which remain unclear. One of the world’s leading political scientists and experts on Israel, Prof. Ian Lustick, from the University of Pennsylvania, was unceremoniously removed after having been invited to be part of the committee, while the proposed chairman, Prof. Robert Shapiro from Columbia University, subsequently resigned owing to what he saw as non-professional intervention on the part of the CHE.
Following the publication of the report a year ago, it was found that the committee had chosen to ignore almost 60 percent of the highly impressive research publications and achievements of the department because, in its view, the department was too multi-disciplinary and was not structured in the way that they believed a political science department should be.
Thus, all research activity and publications which were not in the core areas of traditional political science were not taken into account. The committee also did not take into account that the very same CHE had, 10 years previously, only agreed to the establishment of this department on the condition that it would display greater diversity and would not simply be another copy of the four other political science departments in the country.
The initial report included a strongly worded minority opinion from one of Israel’s top political scientists, Prof. Galia Golan, who disagreed with some of the recommendations on the grounds that they had been politically motivated.
This objection was not surprising given the continuous targeting of this department over the previous five years by extremist right-wing groups such as Im Tirtzu and Israel Academic Monitor, which succeeded in creating a totally false image of the department and its entire faculty as a hotbed of radicalism and anti-Zionism.
A letter published in this paper just last week by a right-wing extremist, Steve Plaut, takes the argument to the height of fiction, in a depiction of the department as much based in reality as is Alice in Wonderland.
Only three sentences of the evaluation committee’s 20-page report dealt with the political accusations, the committee reaching the conclusion that no evidence of political bias in teaching or research was found within the department – having interviewed many students and research faculty to ascertain the facts on the ground rather than relying on false propaganda spread in right-wing websites.
Despite its misgivings about the way in which the report had been written, the university nevertheless decided to implement the recommended changes. The department teaching program was diversified, and three excellent new faculty members were appointed, following the normal rigorous selection process which accompanies the recruitment of all new faculty at Ben-Gurion University. These changes received positive feedback from the two members of the international evaluation committee, Professors Thomas Risse and Ellen Immergut, appointed by the CHE to oversee the implementation of the recommendation by the department.
Risse and Immergut did mention in the last sentence of their positive response that even more could be done to broaden the methodological diversity of the department, a reasonable enough recommendation which would, like all previous recommendations, have been dealt with. Clearly this is not what the CHE had in mind.
In direct contradiction to the positive responses from the international evaluators, and without even bothering to consult or to notify them, the subcommittee recommended to the full council of the CHE that this highly successful and popular department, with an intake of 140 new undergraduates every year, not be allowed to accept new students from 2013 onwards.
Any neutral observer reading the evaluators’ report would find it impossible to observe any link between the opinion of the international evaluators and the decision taken by the CHE subcommittee. Its opinion that the department does not reflect the true nature of political science studies has been questioned by almost every leading academic organization and a host of internationally renowned professors who have written to the CHE in recent weeks.
Those who have written to the CHE include some of the leading political and social scientists in the world – people who have a full grasp of their profession and do not take such attacks on the discipline lightly.
Among the critics of the move (to name but a few) are the American Political Science Association, the Israel Political Science Association, the Israel Association for International Affairs, The American Sociological Association, the European Association of Israel Studies, the Association of Israel Studies (AIS), The Association of American Geographers, and no less a figure than one of the world’s leading political philosophers, Professor Michael Walzer from the University of Princeton – and the list is goes on.
What all these critics have in common is that they are all supportive of Israel, collaborate with Israeli researchers and scientists, visit Israel for academic conferences, and have all reached the exact same conclusion – namely, that the recommendation of the CHE negates all good academic and scientific practices and is causing damage to Israel’s scientific standing in the world.
And what has been the response of the CHE to this global and unanimous condemnation? In a response which is so typical of the right wing in Israel, they have accused the university of orchestrating an international campaign against the CHE as part of the “radical leftist” attempts to delegitimize Israel.
A university which bears the name of Ben-Gurion, which is at the forefront of developing the Negev and whose social and national agenda brings credit to the State of Israel, now stands accused by the CHE of joining forces with Israel’s enemies. The CHE totally ignores the professional criticism of its recent recommendations and, instead of congratulating the university on meeting almost all of the professional recommendations in the original report, has resorted to a cheap political response to a problem which they created in the first place.
What is even more troubling is that on each of the three occasions this topic has been raised at CHE meetings during the past 12 months, the content of the meeting has been leaked to the media by a senior member of the CHE within hours, even before the decision was sent to the university. The fact that no other discussion of the CHE has ever been released in this way raises serious questions about the real interests of the CHE committee.
Much harm is being done to the name of Israel’s scientific community. The CHE must return to being a professional body, free from political ideologies and pressures. It must seek a new way of ensuring the highest scientific and academic standards at all of Israel’s universities. Failure to do so will make the CHE irrelevant, to the detriment of both the Israeli and the global scientific community.
The writer is Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. The views expressed are his alone.