Israeli academia is in an uproar. And this is a good thing. Last week, the Zionist student movement Im Tirtzu opened a rather modest campaign against Ben-Gurion University’s Politics and Government Department. And the howls of protest stretched from the Negev to the border with Lebanon.
Im Tirtzu is a grass-roots initiative of university students. Over the past few years it has managed to amass a modest budget funded by Jewish and non-Jewish Zionists here and in the US.
One of Im Tirtzu’s central goals is to engender an atmosphere of academic freedom and intellectual pluralism on university campuses. Over the past generation or so, those campuses, and particularly the humanities and social sciences faculties, have become hotbeds of anti-Zionist activism and intellectual terror. Stories of professorial intimidation of and discrimination against Zionist students are widespread, as are instances of outright indoctrination in the classrooms.
As Ma’ariv’s Ben Dror Yemini reported this week, at Hebrew University’s law school, Prof. Yehuda Shenhav teaches a class called “Bureaucracy, Governance and Human Rights.” In the course of their studies, the students are expected to participate in the work of anti-Zionist organizations including Machsom Watch and Yesh Din. At the end of the year, the participants – who will be paid NIS 1,450 for their activism – are expected to write an article describing their experiences which will be turned into a booklet edited by Shenhav and anti-Zionist activists Michael Sfard and Yael Barda and published by their anti-Zionist NGOs.
The situation at Ben-Gurion University’s Politics and Government Department is particularly distressing. It is headed by Dr. Neve Gordon, an anti-Zionist activist who has written that Israel is a “proto-fascist state,” has castigated it as an “apartheid state” and has signed petitions calling for international academic, scientific, economic and cultural boycotts of the country.
Responding to complaints from students, Im Tirtzu undertook an examination of the Politics and Government Department faculty. It discovered that among the department’s 11 tenured instructors, nine are involved in extreme leftist political activity. Led by Gordon, six of the 11 signed a letter supporting soldiers who refuse to serve in the IDF.
Both of the department’s research fellows are notorious among their students for their anti-Zionist views. Eight of the department’s 19 adjunct lecturers publicly espouse radical leftist views. Three of the department’s six doctoral candidates have signed letters in support of Gordon’s calls for international boycotts.
AS EREZ Tadmor, Im Tirtzu’s research director, noted in a television interview last week, these views represent the politics of but a smattering of the public. And yet, they are the predominant view of the department. In a place where the most radical, dogmatic views – views that reject the state’s very right to exist – predominate, it is impossible to imagine that the average student feels comfortable exploring and researching other thought streams. Consequently, it is reasonable to fear that far from educating students, the department engages in wholesale indoctrination of students.
Indeed, as Makor Rishon’s Yishai Friedman reported last Friday, the department pays them and gives them academic credit for participation in radical leftist NGOs. As Friedman exposed, students who volunteer at post-Zionist NGOs funded by the New Israel Fund receive academic credit for their efforts and the NIF provides them with generous NIS 7,400 scholarships for their activism.
Several of the department’s faculty members serve or have served in leadership positions in these groups. For instance, Gordon served as the head of NIF-funded Physicians for Human Rights, which supported the false claim that the IDF massacred Palestinians in the battle at the Jenin refugee camp in 2002. The scholarship program is funded through the NIF’s Shatil group’s Everett Social Justice Fellowship initiative.
Last month, Im Tirtzu sent a letter to Ben-Gurion University president Rivka Karmi asking her to take action to correct the atmosphere of intellectual terror in the department.
It asked that she inform the group, within a month, of the actions she had taken in this regard.
It then gave her an ultimatum. If she refused to respond to its query, “we will be forced to utilize our freedom of speech and protest and use all legal means to inform the current and future student body, and especially those who support Ben-Gurion University in Israel and abroad, about the severity of the situation and the administration’s prolonged refusal to contend with the situation which has allowed it to reach the current level of severity. We will also recommend that political science students not study at Ben-Gurion University.
“Additionally we will request that the university’s donors place their contributions in an escrow account overseen by an attorney. The funds will be released to the university after it has substantively proven that the department’s bias and distortion, expressed by the faculty and course syllabi, have been corrected.”
Predictably, Karmi never acknowledged Im Tirtzu’s letter. And so when the month ended last week, the group embarked on a worldwide public relations campaign against the department. The campaign, which was widely covered by the media (and evoked the predictable condemnation of Haaretz), has led to a storm of criticism by professors at Ben-Gurion and their comrades throughout the country. Predictably, they have castigated Im Tirtzu as a McCarthyist group, a fascist group, an extremist group and a far-right group that is seeking to silence dissent and destroy the principle of academic freedom.
So too, many professors who have spoken on the issue have argued that Im Tirtzu has no right to be heard. For instance, in a television appearance last week, Prof. Yossi Yonah from Ben-Gurion appeared on Erev Hadash with Tadmor. There he said, “I reject the authority, the legitimacy of a group like this to come and investigate my behavior as a member of the faculty.”
These assertions are completely ridiculous. First of all, academic freedom is not threatened. What Im Tirtzu and other organizations like the Institute for Zionist Strategies have criticized is the fact that ideological uniformity in academic departments is not conducive to academic freedom.
NO ONE is criticizing professors’ right to engage in academic study. Im Tirtzu and other groups object first to the fact that much of what is presented as academic work is nothing but polemical dogma, unsupported by empirical or theoretical research.
Second they object to the fact that the views of the radical Left, which represents almost no one here, receives the majority of teaching and research positions at Ben-Gurion University’s Politics and Government Department.
Karmi has condemned Im Tirtzu and its campaign as McCarthyist and an attempt to silence opposing voices. While these assertions are par for the course for university heads who behave as though they have a divine right to unlimited taxpayer and donor funds, they are utterly false.
In acting as it has, Im Tirtzu has simply pointed out the obvious. No one is under any obligation to fund institutions that advance causes opposite to those they believe in. No one is required to study in a department that seeks to indoctrinate rather than educate. And both donors and students have a right to know what it is they are supporting.
Beyond that, the truth is that initiatives like Im Tirtzu’s seek to expand rather than contract academic freedom. It is inarguable that academic freedom flourishes in environments where all dissenting views are given fair representation.
Perhaps more important than the ultimate consequences of Im Tirtzu’s campaign is what both the initiative and the Left’s response to it tell us about the direction Israeli society is taking.
The Left’s hysterical response tells us that it – and particularly the academic Left – is incapable of withstanding even the slightest criticism. Yonah’s insistence that the likes of Tadmor have no right to criticize academics exposes a deep and abiding contempt for the public harbored by our publicly funded professors. From a budgetary perspective, Im Tirtzu lacks even a small percentage of the funds available to anti-Zionist NGOs like Physicians for Human Rights, which enjoys seemingly bottomless financial support from the EU and the NIF.
And yet, despite their unrivaled access to funds, their nearly complete control over the country’s universities, the often knee-jerk media support for their campaigns against Israel and their ability to spend sabbaticals abroad conferring with their Israel-bashing colleagues in places like Berkeley, for our radical academics, Im Tirtzu’s initiative to expose their hostility to the state that supports them evokes group hysteria. In response they call for Bolshevik-style rejection of the public’s right to notice their behavior, let alone criticize it.
Despite its modest budget, Im Tirtzu’s message is getting across. And not for the first time. In the spring the group launched a wildly successful public awareness campaign about the NIF. The group released a report detailing the central role NIF-sponsored groups played in assisting the Goldstone Commission in preparing its libelous report accusing Israel of committing war crimes in Operation Cast Lead.
What Im Tirtzu’s repeated success tells us is that something exciting is happening today. After a generation of meekly accepting the Left’s domination of the public discourse – in the media, in academia, in the legal system and in popular culture – the public has finally had enough. Young people like Tadmor and Im Tirtzu’s leader Ronen Shoval are finally standing up to their authority. And because they reflect the values and views of the overwhelming majority of the public, their message is getting through.
For the first time in a generation, the Left is on the defensive. Rather than dominating the airwaves with its allegations of Israeli and Zionist racism and criminality, it is forced to defend its right to block out all dissenting voices from the national debate.
There is much reason for concern about prospects for the future. With military threats to the country multiplying by the day and with the political campaign to delegitimize it escalating, Israel is under assault as never before. And yet, what the success of groups like Im Tirtzu shows is that, by and large, the public remains strong, vibrant, defiant and courageous. As our enemies grow stronger, the public is rising to meet and defeat them.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.