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Israeli Universities and American Freedoms

Why should Americans care about political interference in the universities of a far-off country? Because the far-off country is Israel, one of our closest allies, a nation that features intimately in our own political life; and because Israel’s domestic affairs have a way of morphing into subjects of America’s never-ending culture wars. So it is of considerable importance that as Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, turns up the volume on claims that Israel is at risk from barbarians, his government persists in illicitly expanding its powers and eroding liberties.

In July, Israeli universities were shaken when a college located in the West Bank, Ariel University Center, was declared by Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar to be worthy of the status of an Israeli university and of being supported as such—although Israel’s seven university leaders (along with the Planning and Budgeting Committee of Israel’s statutory Council for Higher Education) opposed that decision, and under international law the university is not located in the territory of Israel. Such is the stranglehold that West Bank settlers have on Netanyahu’s government.

Sa’ar’s steamroller is busy. He heads Israel’s Council for Higher Education, which routinely reviews academic departments. Toward that end the council named a committee to review international and political-science programs. One member of the panel—the only one who studies Israel professionally—was a University of Pennsylvania political-science professor, Ian Lustick. In October 2011, Lustick told me, he learned he had been tossed off the committee by the council’s higher-ups, whereupon the chairman of the review committee, Robert Shapiro, a Columbia University political scientist, resigned in protest.

Subsequently, a panel subcommittee recommended certain improvements in Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s political-science department—improvements that were matters of curriculum and scope. The department proceeded to make the recommended changes—“in record time,” according to the university president, Rivka Carmi, in an open letter dated September 19, 2012. This, she writes, “elicited a positive written response from the two international members who had been appointed to oversee the implementation of the recommendations.” Then something “unprecedented” happened:  “We were astonished to discover that the Council for Higher Education’s subcommittee discussed the same issue once again and published a new decision, extreme in its severity, which is totally at odds with the evaluation written by the two international members who had been appointed to oversee the process.”

The new decision was that no students were to be admitted for the 2013-14 academic year. “This extreme decision was reached not due to any unusual incident or a severe act,” Carmi wrote, “or because demands made by the Council for Higher Education were not met.”

Although Carmi has frequently expressed political disagreement with the political scientists on her campus, she knows that the principle of academic freedom is at stake. She wrote in no uncertain terms:

For all intents and purposes, this is a decision to close down a university department in Israel. … The subcommittee’s decision was reached without any factual base to back it up; it is unreasonable and disproportional, and, most importantly, it does not in any way reflect the opinion of the international committee which oversaw the process. We therefore wonder what is actually behind this decision. This struggle is not only about Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, but rather it is a struggle of the entire Israeli academic community. … The approval of this decision by the Council for Higher Education [expected in October] will constitute a devastating blow to academic independence in Israel.

Neve Gordon, a Ben-Gurion University political-science professor, told me that no academic department had ever been shut down by the Council for Higher Education during the 64-year history of the state of Israel. Shutting down a department permits the summary firing of tenured professors.

Netanyahu’s Likud party and its nationalist ally, Yisrael Beiteinu, have been cracking down on dissenters for months. It would seem that cowing the academy is one of their objectives. Of the current academic situation in Israel, Lustick told me, “there’s a real witch-hunt.” These are the tactics of a government that throttles liberties and punishes opponents. Such developments, if they took place in Egypt or Russia, would constitute plain human-rights violations and would—I hope, at any rate—elicit protests from the State Department. Not only the State Department but all lovers of freedom should be heard from now.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. He is author, with Liel Leibovitz, of The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election (Simon & Schuster, 2010).

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