In defense of academic freedom

An Israeli flag waves over Jerusalem's Old City.
(Dan Balilty / Associated Press)
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In August 2009, an Israeli academic and political activist by the name of Neve Gordon published an Op-Ed article in the Los Angeles Times in which he reluctantly called for a gradual international boycott against his own nation. Gordon felt that such dramatic action was required to overcome the deep structural inequities between Jews and Arabs in Israeli society and the occupied territories, and to force the government back toward the goal of a two-state solution.

Three years later, Gordon’s academic home, the Department of Politics and Government of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is on the verge of being closed down by the Israeli Council for Higher Education, a highly unusual act in Israel. It is hard not to draw a direct line between Gordon’s call for a boycott and the council’s impending decision on Oct. 23.

A committee appointed by the council in 2010 to review all political science departments in Israeli universities arrived at a rather discordant set of conclusions regarding the department at BGU. On one hand, it made suggestions that one often finds in external reviews of university departments, proposing curricular changes, a more coherent undergraduate program and three to four additional faculty hires.


But the committee also trained its attention on the “community activism” of the department’s members, many of whom, like Gordon, are highly critical of Israeli government policy. Following that, it made a vaguely articulated call for “a balance of views in the curriculum and the classroom.” If changes were not made, the committee opined, “Ben-Gurion University should consider closing the Department of Politics and Government.”

In fact, changes were made, to the satisfaction of the committee chair. But the Council for Higher Education appointed another committee that persists in recommending that the department be essentially closed down.

Why should this matter to us? First, academic freedom — by which I mean not an approved set of pro/con views but rather tolerance in and outside the classroom for diverse perspectives argued logically and respectfully — is an important foundation of democracy in the United States, in Israel and around the world.

Second, we in California are familiar with attempts to set limits on academic freedom. Over the last decade, self-anointed guardians of academic freedom have attempted to upend it by insisting on balance in university courses or on limitations on the right of free speech by faculty members and students. The most recent attempt is House Resolution 35, which was passed in the Assembly in August. This “nonbinding” resolution urged California’s state universities to combat anti-Semitism on campus. That sounds good, but as framed, it could have the effect of censoring views critical of Israeli policy.

Efforts to infringe on academic freedom have deep roots in the state. At the dawn of the McCarthy era, California mandated that public employees, including UC professors, sign a loyalty oath requiring them to forswear any allegiance to the Communist Party. Famously, in 1949 the German-born medieval historian Ernst Kantorowicz refused to sign such an oath, though he was hardly a communist. Kantorowicz’s grounding as a medievalist and his experience as a person of Jewish origin in Nazi Germany led him to conclude that “history shows that it never pays to yield to the impact of momentary hysteria, or to jeopardize, for the sake of temporary or temporal advantages, the permanent or eternal values.”

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the importance of academic freedom in its 1967 Keyishian vs. Board of Regents decision, which overturned a New York law that required teachers to sign a loyalty oath: “Our nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.”


It is this very principle that is under siege in Israel. The country’s universities, including Ben-Gurion, are internationally renowned for their research prowess and scholarly excellence. They aspire to be cutting-edge centers of research and teaching; to succeed in this task requires openness to a wide and diverse range of opinions, hypotheses and methods. But with the threat to close down the BGU department, that ideal is under assault by the very body entrusted with upholding it.

Sadly, this is part of a larger assault on democratic values in Israel. A key agent in this battle is an Israeli organization called Im Tirtzu (which translates as “if you will it,” a reference to a legendary line uttered by Zionism’s founding father, Theodor Herzl: “If you will it, it is not a dream”). Im Tirtzu’s declared aim is “to strengthen and advance the values of Zionism in Israel.” One of the ways it seeks to do so is by conducting investigations of professors and syllabi that it suspects of insufficient Zionist ardor.

Beginning in 2008, it began to take aim at Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Politics and Government for its “severe anti-Zionist tilt.” In the wake of a 2010 report, Im Tirtzu proceeded to threaten the university with a boycott of its own, aimed principally at donors, which would be lifted only if the university altered the political balance in that department in accordance with Im Tirztu’s orientation.

In the current political environment in Israel, the heavy-handed tactics of Im Tirtzu are not dismissed as the deeds of ideological extremists. On the contrary, they are accorded a warm reception in the halls of power. Im Tirtzu’s 2010 report on Ben-Gurion University was taken up by the Knesset’s Education Committee, and from there referred to the Council for Higher Education.

Ominously, the chair of the council is Israeli Education Minister Gideon Saar, who has been a keynote speaker at an Im Tirtzu conference and has expressed support for its campaigns against ideologically questionable professors.

If the Council for Higher Education were to close down the BGU Department of Politics and Government, it would not only constitute an assault on academic freedom and do irreparable harm to the council’s mission and credibility, it would signal a further erosion of democratic values in Israel. All who are concerned for the well-being of Israel’s fine universities and that country’s very soul should appeal to the Council for Higher Education to resist this descent down a steep, slippery slope.


David N. Myers teaches Jewish history and is chairman of the UCLA History Department.