How the Israeli right conspired to shut down ‘lefty’ department at BGU

The crackdown on Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Politics and Government may seem unprecedented, but a closer look reveals an ongoing campaign to challenge academic freedom in the university and beyond.

Ben Gurion University of the Negev. (photo: Cccc3333/CC-BY-SA-3.0)
Ben Gurion University of the Negev. (photo: Cccc3333/CC-BY-SA-3.0)

By B.N.*

While the attacks on the Department of Politics and Government of Ben-Gurion University are being viewed by many as an unprecedented measure, infringements of academic freedom in Israeli-controlled areas are common. They are often part of the regime of military occupation in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza. Today, such infringements in the occupied territories include limitations on students’ and faculty’s access to academic institutions through checkpoints and closures; prohibitions on Palestinian students in Gaza from studying in West Bank institutions; limitations on travel to study or attend conferences abroad, and monitoring of political activities on campuses, including the arrests of students and faculty for such activity. In December 2008 the Israeli Air Force bombed the Islamic University of Gaza, and a decade earlier, Israel closed down Palestinian universities, colleges, and schools. Birzeit University, for instance, was closed down for four years, from February 1988 to April 1992.

Recently, Israel’s government further merged educational and military affairs in its decision to upgrade the college in the West Bank settlement of Ariel to a university. The college (like the settlement) was established in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and is governed by a military officer. In September 2012, Israel’s government asked that military officer to upgrade the college to a university; this process is still pending.

In Israel proper, “threats to students’ freedom to organize politically-oriented activities on university premises and attacks on faculty who voice their criticism of government policies” are a persistent problem.

The Case of Ben Gurion University: The irregular international review process

Infringements of academic freedom expanded recently when a committee of the government’s Council for Higher Education (CHE) threatened to close the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University. The process began with a periodic international review of all political science departments in Israeli universities. Irregularities marred the review from its inception; following official announcement of the committee’s makeup, Prof. Ian Lustick (University of Pennsylvania) was removed from the committee without explanation. In response, the committee chair, Prof. Robert Shapiro (Columbia University) resigned. The committee was subsequently re-staffed with Prof. Thomas Risse (Freie Universität Berlin) as chair, and Prof. Avraham Diskin (Hebrew University).

Professor Diskin is a member of the advisory committee of a radical right-wing think tank, the Institute for Zionist Strategies (IZS). The IZS has close ties to Im Tirtzu, a group which in 2010 initiated an intensive campaign against the Department of Politics and Government at BGU. The campaign focused on the political views and extracurricular activity of faculty members and aimed at stifling debate over Israeli policies.

For instance, Im Tirtzu claimed that:

…the department’s faculty ‘works deliberately and energetically to promote fiercely anti-Zionist messages.’ They charged that nine of [the department’s] 11 permanent faculty members were involved in ‘radical left-wing’ political activity, and six had signed a letter supporting refusal to serve in the army.

The CHE is headed by Israel’s minister of education, Gideon Sa’ar, who supported Im Tirtzu and endorsed its campus activity in 2010. In addition, the CHE heeded the IZS’s effort to curtail academic freedom in Israeli universities.

Im Tirzu members demonstrate against those who have come to show solidarity with military refusers in front of the Tel Hashomer IDF base, near Tel Aviv. (photo: Activestills)
Im Tirzu members demonstrate against those who have come to show solidarity with military refusers in front of the Tel Hashomer IDF base, near Tel Aviv. (photo: Activestills)

The international committee also included Prof. Gabriel Ben Dor (University of Haifa), Prof. Benjamin Jerry Cohen (University of California, Santa Barbara), Prof. Galia Golan (Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya), Prof. Ellen Immergut (Humboldt University Berlin), and Prof. Robert Lieber (Georgetown University). The committee’s report on the Department of Politics and Government at BGU was concerned primarily with three issues: the disciplinary orientation of the department’s research and teaching profile; the political activism component of the curriculum; and the unsubstantiated allegation (Hebrew)—familiar from Im Tirtzu’s campaign—that the department’s faculty members offer an imbalanced representation of political views in the classroom.

In 2002, CHE authorized the department’s organization as an interdisciplinary unit. However, the report criticized this interdisciplinary focus and demanded that the department “corrects its current weaknesses in its core discipline of political science in terms of number of faculty, curriculum, and research.”

Most authors of the report were also “concerned that the study of politics as a scientific discipline may be impeded by such strong emphasis on political activism.” However, a minority opinion by Professor Galia Golan questioned the unexplained linkage of disciplinary issues with the emphasis on political activism.

The report emphasized the importance of ensuring “a balance of views in the curriculum and the classroom” so that “students can take a critical perspective” even though it stated that undergraduate students “seemed to be able to express different views” from those of faculty members, and that graduate students said that they “were encouraged to be critical even of the lecturers.” In her minority opinion, Golan wrote that she was “not certain who or how a ‘balance’ might be determined,” and that “such a demand runs directly counter to the principle of academic freedom, a basic principle of university education.” The committee’s criticism of faculty members’ political views undermines the standards of academic reviews and suggests that the committee’s agenda was at least partially tainted by irrelevant political concerns.

The recommendation 

The report stated that if the department fails to introduce curricular changes and hire new faculty members in “core” areas of political science, then, “as a last resort, Ben Gurion University should consider closing the Department of Politics and Government.”

The committee made a curious methodological decision in evaluating the department’s publication record. Because of its interdisciplinary orientation, the department’s faculty publishes in journals in several fields. However, the committee counted only articles published in strictly political science and international relations journals. As a result, the committee counted only half of the articles and criticized the department at BGU for the ostensible weakness of insufficient publications. At the same time, it praised the publication record of Tel Aviv University’s political science department when in fact, even when disregarding articles that BGU published in journals outside the discipline, the BGU department publishes twice as many articles per faculty member.

Furthermore, the report stated erroneously that faculty members have not published books in leading academic presses, but the nine full-time faculty have, in fact, published six books in the three years prior to the report, of which three appeared in top academic presses (California, Cornell, Columbia), two more in Routledge, and a sixth in the top press in France.

Following the report, the department addressed the committee’s concerns by introducing changes to its curriculum and hiring three new faculty members. Professors Risse and Immergut of the international committee served as a subcommittee to follow up on the execution of the report’s recommendations. They responded to the university’s plan of action by saying:

 …if the Action Plan and the measures detailed in the letter of February 22, 2012, are implemented, BGU’s Department of Politics and Government will have followed the main recommendations of the CHE Evaluation Committee Report of September 2011. As a result, the option of closing the department which the Committee had mentioned as a last resort, in the absence of changes, should be off the table in our view. However, we cannot change the Committee report at this point.

Guilty until proven innocent

Several months later, the CHE’s Sub-Committee for Quality Assessment (SCQA) asked Risse and Immergut to review the CVs of the new faculty hired by the department. In July 2012, Risse and Immergut praised the department for its successful fulfillment of the committee’s requests and wrote:

“We congratulate the department on successfully recruiting three new faculty members in the areas of comparative politics, quantitative methods, and political theory, and for its plans for a fourth recruitment next year.”

Despite the international subcommittee’s satisfaction with the changes and the positive spirit of communication between the university and the committee, in September 2012 the CHE’s SCQA introduced new requirements that were never mentioned by the international committee. First, it stated its dissatisfaction with the fields of expertise of the new faculty members:

The department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University failed to take advantage of the new faculty recruitments following the international committee’s report in order to broaden the range of research approaches in the department in a way that would reflect the pluralism of approaches in the discipline. We refer mainly to the under-representation of the positivist approach in political science among the department’s faculty members. The recruitment of faculty members, most of whom represent a sub-approach of interpretive research (critical theory) in a department where this sub-approach is already overrepresented does not agree with the spirit of the international committee’s report [translated from Hebrew].

In so stating, the SCQA assumed the role of ultimate disciplinary arbiters of the field—despite the fact that only one of the ten professors on the SCQA is a political scientist—in violation of the academic freedom of the department and university. The professional report of the international committee does not even mention positivist approaches.

Moreover, the original report of the international committee suggested to strengthen a field that was already represented (European Studies) in order to “further build up this program as a unique selling point of the Department.” Even when the international subcommittee later suggested curricular modifications, it qualified this suggestion by saying that “this is, of course, up to the instructors to decide.” In light of this attitude, the SCQA’s new sweeping demands seem even more bizarre and intrusive.

The SCQA went even further and recommended prohibiting the department from enrolling new students as of summer 2013—in effect, beginning the gradual closure of the department. This stands in stark contrast to the international committee’s recommendation that only “as a last resort,” and only if changes are not instituted, “Ben Gurion University [and not CHE – bn] should consider closing the Department,” and even that suggestion was retracted in March 2012.

The SCQA further recommended that the CHE should:

 create a follow-up committee that would examine the changes in the Department of Politics and Government in the wake of the international committee’s report, including the extent of representation of mainstream methodological and theoretical approaches to political science in the material taught by the department” [translated from Hebrew].

The last two recommendations amount to declaring the department guilty until proven innocent as the decision of closure would precede further assessment. It is worth noting that these recommendations reflect Im Tirtzu’s extended campaign against the department, which was assisted by the IZS.

BGU President Rivka Carmi: ‘Astounded’

Understandably, the department and Ben-Gurion University were astounded by these unexpected new recommendations. Following their publication, BGU’s president Prof. Rivka Carmi, the rector and the dean of humanities and social sciences wrote to the BGU community:

we were astounded to find out that the CHE’s Sub-Committee discussed this issue again and published a new recommendation which contradicts that of the international committee” [translated from Hebrew].

Prof. Risse, chair of the international evaluation committee wrote (Hebrew) regarding the SCQA’s recommendation that

we were not consulted about items 4 and 5 [to establish another follow-up committee and to prohibit student enrolment]. . . . Does the SCQA recommendation suggest that we have completed our mission, or should we continue?

The university HAS initiated legal action against the CHE while the campaign against the department continues.

Rivka Carmi, President of Ben-Gurion University. (photo: Ben Gurion University / CC BY-3.0)
Rivka Carmi, President of Ben-Gurion University. (photo: Ben Gurion University / CC BY-3.0)

The CHE is scheduled to discuss the SCQA’s recommendations on October 30, 2012. So far, numerous international academic associations (including The American Political Science Association, the leading professional organization for the study of political science, The European Consortium for Political Research, The Association of American Geographers, The American Sociological Association, The Association for Israel Studies, The Middle East Studies Association of North America, and The Canadian Association of University Teachers) voiced their concerns for academic freedom in public statements and letters to the CHE and the Israeli Minister of Education, and so have a number of Israeli academic associations

Israel has fought calls for boycotting Israeli academic institutions by praising its own commitment to academic freedom. However, Israel’s education minister Gideon Saar (ex officio chair of the CHE) recently called for the dismissal [Hebrew] of Professor Neve Gordon, a member of the department, because of Gordon’s op-ed that supported the boycott. Saar’s statement increases the impression that this affair has been politically motivated and has little to do with academic merit. Moreover, if the Israeli Council for Higher Education shuts the department down or alternately fires any of its members, this can only strengthen international calls for severing ties with Israel’s academic establishment.

*The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a faculty member in one of Israel’s universities.

 

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