Universities are in the footnotes

BGU president responds to those ‘monitoring’ groups that claim Israeli universities are home to ‘anti-Zionists.’

Boycott Israel 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Boycott Israel 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
We live in an age shaped by ratings. Newspapers are always looking for that sexy headline that will sell papers or drive people to link to their pages, becoming ever more superficial as our lives devolve into a world of sound bites and shallow, sensational stories.
Bloggers become pundits as they create their own discourse online. Overhead is low. Responsibility and accountability are minimal. And impact and audience are far wider than anyone could have imagined. It is in this environment that so-called “watch-dog” groups are able to attract far more attention than they would have five or 10 years ago.
Just as the president of the United States recently found himself with no choice but to counter rumors about his real birth location that were “out there” in the blogosphere, so I find myself – as both the President of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the head of the Committee of University Presidents of Israel – forced to respond publicly to those “monitoring” groups who claim Israeli universities are home to “anti- Zionists” who are “politically indoctrinating” students.
Over the past 12 months, these socalled monitoring groups have changed tactics, calling on friends of Israeli universities and members of their boards of governors to withhold funding until the universities take action against members who support the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, and dismiss those lecturers whom these groups define as “anti-Zionist” or “enemies of the State of Israel.”
These kinds of blanket accusations distort the real situation at Israeli universities, and do a disservice to the thousands of students, faculty and staff dedicated to promoting the highest levels of research and teaching.
Among the nearly 5,000 full-time senior academics currently working in this country – and who are responsible for one of the highest rates of scientific publication in the world – less than 10 (10 people, not 10%) openly support the BDS movement. And let me stress: all the university presidents and senior administrators actively denounce any such support, in Israel and around the world. Ironically, those Israelis who do support BDS – and who are used to being ignored by the mainstream Israeli press – have gained international notoriety thanks in part to online promotion by the very groups that condemn them.
The truth is that these monitoring groups claim to be motivated by a love of Israel, but in fact they have a clear political agenda which they are willing to advance using the age-old method of blackmail. Either Israeli universities accept their conditions and “remove” those people with whom they disagree, or they will encourage donors to cut off funding.
These are the kinds of attacks that do not allow for critical thinking or alternate perspectives, and have created an atmosphere in Israel today such that pro-human rights groups are being dismissed as “anti-Zionist,” only adding to the polarization of Israeli society.
These are the kinds of attacks that make for the sexy headlines, and that have dominated the press coverage of Israeli universities for years, but universities are not about headlines. They are about the footnotes.
They are about the slow, painstaking research that goes into the writing of a PhD dissertation or the publication of a scientific paper; about the open exchange of ideas that encourage serious scholarship and innovative thinking. Universities are about empowering students, encouraging them to experience the excitement of discovery and volunteering in the community. They are about pursuing state-of-the-art scholarship and scientific knowledge with the world’s best and brightest minds.
At the same time, given the ongoing and heated political debate in Israel, all universities require faculty members to adhere to a strict policy of leaving political discussions outside the classroom.
In January this year, the BGU Senate (comprised of university academic staff) issued a declaration based on recommendations of the Ethics Committee outlining specific guidelines for researchers, and requiring them to clearly delineate between their academic work and political activities. This document was the first of its kind in Israel, and other universities are now considering following our example.
Israelis are known around the world for their loud, boisterous character. The Talmud provides, in many ways, a detailed document that chronicles a long history of public debate. This is what makes for a strong democracy, albeit a noisy one.
Don’t let headlines and advertisements lead you astray. Visit an Israeli university. Meet with the amazing students and faculty members who embody the pioneering spirit that created and built this wonderful country. They are the real Zionists: Israel’s hope and best bet for the future.
The writer is president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.