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Editorial Article

A Conference on "Academic Freedom" At Ben-Gurion University

By Dr. Yitzhak Klein

On May 18 Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Politics and Government celebrated its tenth anniversary with a one-day conference on the topic of "Academic Freedoms—Academic Responsibilities.” The author attended the conference. The objective of the conference turned out not to be the celebration of academic freedom, but an attempt to deny academic freedom to critics of the conference organizers’ political views and political activism.

The Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion, and the university itself, have good reason to feel threatened by the exercise of certain forms of academic freedom. The activities of Isracampus and similar organizations have helped publicize anti-Zionist, anti-Israel publication, public activism, and classroom indoctrination by Israeli academics, raising the question whether this represents a legitimate use of academic freedom or a justifiable use of funding for higher education. Ben-Gurion University, in particular, has been hard hit by private donors who curtailed their support when they became aware of anti-Zionist activity at the institution.

The conference was not devoted to a debate on this important public-policy issue, which - with one exception - was not even mentioned. Rather, the purpose of the conference was to condemn research, writing and reporting on anti-Zionism at Israeli universities as an inadmissible attack on academic liberty. From the perspective of the organizers of the conference and the speakers who addressed the subject, academic liberty consists of the liberty to delegitimize Zionism and the State of Israel, but not the liberty to describe what is being done. That kind of research is not worthy even of the respect accorded ordinary freedom of speech. Any attempt to sanction, or even to take note of anti-Zionist activities by those who foot the bill for higher education in Israel is immoral, a scandalous infringement of academic liberty. No point of view challenging this perspective, or raising the question of what funding for higher education is supposed to achieve, was allowed a place at the conference table.

This preconceived perspective crippled the conference’s ability to treat effectively its ostensible subject. Close to two billion dollars a year of public and private philanthropic funds are spent on higher education in Israel. And yet it was forbidden to raise the question of what all this money was for; what public purposes public funding is meant to serve, or how much say private donors ought to have about the uses to which their philanthropy is applied. Speakers at the conference appeared to regard all this money as an inalienable entitlement, unconnected to anything they might do with it and any objective their activity might serve. One speaker even went so far as to proclaim this explicitly, basing himself on a reference to obscure medieval history.

Post-modernists (which most conference participants were) would point out that the conference seemed a classic example of a power-text: It both advertised and attempted to conceal its main message at one and the same time. The subject was ostensibly freedom of expression, but the major subtext was the desire of Israel’s university system to continue to receive public funds without accountability, including ordinary fiscal accountability, all in the name of “academic freedom,” and to silence anyone who might jeopardize that objective.

The introductory, supposedly ceremonial, session of the conference was used by representatives of Israel’s academic establishment to justify their prerogatives and dress them in the mantle of academic liberty. Prof. Shlomo Grossman, chairman of the all-powerful Planning and Budgeting Committee of Israel’s Higher Education Council, affirmed that the Committee retains exclusive control over higher education budgets in Israel. He proudly related that his Committee had just thwarted an attempt by the government to replace representatives of the university on the committee with public figures. Grossman did not mention that the defeated initiative represented an attempt to introduce responsible accounting and budgeting procedures in the wake of a report by the State Comptroller, detailing the scandalous mismanagement of higher education’s resources by the Committee. Instead, he represented the reform as an attempt to dictate opinion (without any evidence) and stated that it would “bury” academic liberty. Grossman represents the institution that, more than any other, is responsible for choking off genuine diversity in Israeli academia in the course of protecting the financial and power interests of Israel’s established universities.

Grossman was followed by Prof. Moshe Justman, Dean of Social Science Ben-Gurion University, who also inveighed against supposed attempts to “dictate” political orientation to universities. He especially condemned attempts to impose external financial discipline upon the universities and to undermine the existing tenure system.

The last speaker in this series was Dr. Neve Gordon, chairman of the Department of Politics and Government and a well-known anti-Zionist of extreme views. Gordon reiterated Justman’s themes—the importance of leaving universities to be governed by their faculties, and of academic tenure. He insisted that academic liberty in Israel was superior to that of the United States, and then went off on a tangent, asserting that the fact that Palestinian universities are “denied academic freedom”--Israeli authorities have closed some of them for serving as incubators of Palestinian terrorists—means there is no academic freedom in Israel. The logical implication, of course, is that the United States is doubly benighted because its academic freedom is inferior to Israel’s and Israel has no academic freedom because Palestinian campuses are closed.

It might have been pointed out that the leading universities in the United States--Harvard, Yale, Stanford and others--are private institutions managed by boards of governors, not by their faculty. The boards of these institutions have fostered world-class excellence by insisting that funds be used efficiently to attract the most talented scholars in every field, and dictating the ruthless weeding out of the merely competent. However, there was no place at the conference table for this point of view.

The first “real” session was devoted to the subject, “What are Academic Freedoms?” The one dissenting note of the conference was sounded here by Prof. Amnon Rubinstein of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. Rubinstein is a former education minister and was the only speaker throughout the day who argued that academics, like other mortals, have social responsibilities other than those they choose to define themselves. Prof. Rubinstein defined three kinds of activity that do not merit protection under the rubric of academic liberty:

a)      Activity that harms the interest of an academic’s scholarly institution--e.g., advocating a boycott of Israeli universities.

b)      Activity against the national interest—e.g. advocating the boycott of and divestment from Israel

c)      Propagating scurrilous hate propaganda based on historical falsification, e.g. the activities of Holocaust denier David Irving.

Prof. Rubinstein also insisted that universities had a responsibility to society to seek to host a diversity of viewpoints and not permit themselves to be captured by any one school of thought. He did not make clear in his remarks who should bear responsibility for ensuring that abuses of academic liberty are redressed or for ensuring that academic diversity is maintained.

In private conversation after the session Prof. Rubinstein confirmed to me that his remarks were, in fact, directed at his hosts at the conference. There are no overt Holocaust deniers on the faculty of Ben Gurion University (though some defended Norman Finkelstein, who is considered one), but there are not a few who consider Zionism and Israel illegitimate.

Prof. Gadi Algazi of Tel Aviv University, a medieval historian and post-Zionist, also spoke in Rubinstein’s session. Algazi contrasted two models of medieval universities: The “good” type of university was an independent corporation, which - over a period of centuries - achieved academic independence and legal autonomy. In these universities academic salaries were not tied to the pursuit of any kind of activity or dependent upon oversight; professors enjoyed absolute freedom to do what they pleased or do nothing at all. The other type was the university established by a prince, in order to cultivate his own supply of clerks and lawyers, and who hired and dismissed professors according to his own tastes. Algazi condemned the modern tendency to subject universities to fiscal discipline and to objective criteria of academic productivity, to insist that universities perform a recognizable public service and to undervalue what he termed “distinct academic communities.” This was a reference to postmodern academic activity, which disdains to share the criteria of objectivity common to most mainstream academia and sometimes views its mission as the advancement of political agendas of a particular kind.

Algazi did not address the relevance of his presentation to modern publicly-funded university systems in democracies. Is there a mission universities are supposed to fulfill? Might the assumption behind higher education funding be the importance to society of training minds in critical, objective thinking? Despite their claim to mastery of “critical theory,” might the refusal of post-modernists to accept that all thinking can and ought to be subjected to dispassionate and objective criticism in the light of universal standards cut against the purpose for which the public funds universities? These questions went unaddressed at the conference.

Sessions 2 and 3 were unexceptional except in certain marginal ways that will be mentioned below. Session 4 was devoted to academic boycotts. These are a serious infringement of academic freedom. However, Jacklyn Cock of Witwatersrand University claimed that the academic boycott of South Africa during apartheid actually promoted the cause of academic freedom because it forced South African academics to confront the hitherto-suppressed topic of ending apartheid (i.e., rendering it free to discuss the end of apartheid) and to devote their intellect to imagining and projecting the creation of a nonracial society. Therefore she considered the boycott a good thing for South African academia and academic freedom. She noted that the precondition for a successful academic boycott in South Africa was the overwhelming support for boycott by the great majority of South Africans (blacks and some whites). This lent boycott its moral legitimacy, which in turn was a necessary condition for its tactical effectiveness—the mobilization of South African academics against apartheid. She noted that there was no such moral consensus within Israeli society, implying that the moral issues involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are very different from South Africa. This difference, of course, explained her presence in the city of Beer Sheva and at the conference.

Cock’s talk also implicitly set the agenda of Israel’s post-Zionists: They must convince the majority of Jewish Israelis that their own state and nationalism are illegitimate. Instead of conforming to an existing anti-Israel consensus, they will seek to create one. This of course has been the main battleground inside Israeli academia for some time now.

Prof. David Newman, the conference organizer, addressed the British academic boycott of Israel. He noted that the administration of British universities and even EU policymaking bodies in the fields of academia and research regard the proposed boycott of Israel as illegitimate and a nuisance. He claimed it is neither in Britain’s nor in the EU’s interest to boycott an academic establishment the size and quality of Israel’s (equivalent to that of Italy or of all Central Europe taken together, without adjustment for quality -- YK). The sole advocates of the boycott were professional unionists from Britain’s amalgamated academic union; and these union activists are not scholars. B ritain’s academic union represents perhaps 200,000 academic workers, of whom about 0.1% attend union conferences where boycott proposals are tabled and approved.

The final session of the day was entitled “Academic Freedom in Israel/Palestine.” The term in the title is the code phrase for the disappearance of Israel and its replacement by a unitary Jewish/Arab state in which Arabs dominate. Before analyzing this important session, let us note briefly something said earlier in the day by Dr. Becky Kook of Ben-Gurion’s Department of Politics and Government, who chaired the second session.  In her introductory remarks Kook noted that her department does not claim to do “political science,” because it challenges the very assertion that politics is a science. Calling a field a science presumes a certain relationship between scholar and subject, an assumption of objectivity, which “we” (meaning the members of her department) reject. The scholar is inside the world of politics--not outside it observing objectively.

The implications of Dr Kook’s statement is that in the realm of politics, broadly conceived, one’s values and agenda precede one’s scholarship, and scholarship is only another avenue to achieve one’s agenda. This raises the question whether the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University should not be affiliated with the Ministry of Religion instead of the Ministry of Education--with pay scales, personnel and a level of activity adjusted accordingly. Dr Kook also asked: Why are academics to be privileged to pursue their values/agendas at public expense more than butchers or bakers? If this is the meaning of academic freedom, what is the social value of such freedom that merits public funding?  Is this kind of intellectual activity what the public thinks it is buying when its representatives budget their hard-earned tax shekels for higher education?

What was only implied in Dr Kook’s remarks was made explicit by Dr Dani Filc of Ben-Gurion University, whose sermon turned out to be the key address of the last session of the conference. Filc opened his homily by claiming that the concept of academic freedom was “embedded” within liberal discourse and implies freedom from state interference in academic work. This idea is more easily sustained in a period of positivist epistemology (i.e. when people think they are teaching truth). Today, however, we have a more “realist, intersubjective” [sic] view of affairs and we cannot think of freedom in that way any more. He then added: there can be no academic freedom as long as the occupation continues. “While this is happening we cannot really speak of academic freedom for any of us.” As long as there are dominated groups in society, there is no academic freedom, even for those who enjoy the right to conduct research and to teach as they please.

This was a moving call for “academic freedom” for the Palestiniansassuming one accepts Filc’s assumptions and agrees to overlook the elements of the situation he chose to ignore. But this was a sermon, not scholarship. It was not a demonstration that academic freedom in Israel is compromised, but rather a political “call to conscience,” to be dissatisfied with one’s own academic freedom as long as it is supposedly denied to others. Such a call of course assumes one’s conscience can swallow all the implications, including the threat to human life, from allowing Palestinian universities and their cells of Hamas and Az-a-din-el-Kassam to function unhindered. And again Dr Filc raised the question in the sharpest sense possible: If no positive scholarship is possible, what is the interest of the public in spending its money on the proliferation of intersubjective accounts of reality? Why shouldn’t the butcher and the baker save the tax shekels they contribute to higher education, and blog their own views of academic freedom and the occupation instead?

Filc’s sermon about the indivisibility of academic freedom was dismissed out of hand by Prof. Naomi Chazan, a former Knesset member and a prominent retired Israeli political scientist, who commented with asperity that what happens in Palestinian universities has nothing at all to do with the state of academic freedom in their Israeli counterparts. A person of Chazan’s stature was able to assert in this Ben Gurion University forum that truth is objective rather than contextual and get away with it.

Chazan then addressed what she saw as the two chief threats to academic freedom. One is the academic boycott. In Chazan’s view, however, this is not the chief threat. The chief threat comes from monitoring organizations that collect information about what academics do, write and teach about Israel and place this information at the disposal of the public, where donors are liable to learn about it. In other words, the real threat to academic freedom is the citation of what extremists have published and said publicly. This “monitoring” activity incensed Chazan. She dilated on it heatedly and at length. She argued that an atmosphere of fear had intruded upon campuses, where academics had become guarded about what they write and say. She claimed to know of five cases—none at Ben-Gurion University—in which academic promotions had been affected by fear of what donors would do and say.

The last significant speaker was the organizer of the conference, Prof. David Newman of the Department of Government and Politics at Ben-Gurion, who spoke from the audience during the comments period. In recent newspaper articles Newman has tried to delegitimize the research activities of organizations that monitor anti-Zionist academic activity, terming them “McCarthyist.” In the conference he repeated these arguments, claiming that he has sat on scores of promotion committees and never once observed a promotion decision affected by political considerations.

But this stands in sharp contrast to the earlier statement of Dr. Becky Kook (originally recruited by Newman), that she had joined Newman’s department because it does not assume a scholar can have an objective relationship to the politics of his subject. One can deconstruct Newman’s statement by observing that political bias at Ben-Gurion is structural, not phenomenal. Becky Kook’s kind of scholarship is done by people with a certain orientation toward politics and academia. They get jobs at Ben-Gurion because the Department of Government and Politics chooses to specialize in certain kinds of scholarship and thinks they are more worth doing than others. In other words, post-modern attitudes are privileged, if not supreme, at Ben-Gurion. The politics department places itself on a level with the institutions it critiques when it attempts to pass off its private criteria of preference as criteria of quality. No Straussians come up for tenure at Ben Gurion University.

Newman further stated his view that, except for the last session, which he conceded was overtly leftist, the conference had been “fair and without political bias.” At this point your correspondent could not refrain from asking for the floor and telling Prof. Newman unequivocally that he was mistaken. Certain relevant points of view had received no hearing at the conference. That was just fine; the university, the department, the lecture hall all belonged to Newman, and he was entitled to use them to promote the agenda he preferred. But he should not try to pretend that opposing perspectives had been allowed to be presented and promoted at this conference.

Of note in sessions 2 and 3 were two speakers who argued that religion and academic activity cannot coexist. Prof. Frank Ravitch of Michigan State argued that religion threatens academic freedom, particularly hierarchical religions such as Catholicism, though religious freedom can be a handmaiden of academic liberty. He thus dismissed the intellectual creativity of the world’s hundreds of religious universities. Prof. Ravitch proposed to draw a distinction between speech made in the context of academic activity, which must remain within certain (unspecified) limits if it is to enjoy institutional support, and private speech, which is not endorsed. This is a problematic view. A professor who, in his spare time, asserts that blacks are intellectually inferior and unworthy of a university education, or one he insists that the proper role of women in academia is as handmaidens to men—an attitude Prof. Algazi cited as once acceptable—prejudice their role as educators and academia should have no place for them. In the third session, devoted to “Academic Freedom Beyond the Center,” Dr. Elie Cohen-Gewerc of Beit Berl Teachers’ College reported on a study of attitudes toward academic freedom among teachers in such colleges and remarked (without reference to the evidence) about the staffs of religious teachers’ colleges, “How can someone engage in free research when teaching in a religious institution devoted to perpetuating religious values?” Of course, this will all come as a surprise to Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge, which were all originally established as colleges officially associated with religion. Dr Cohen-Gewerc’s statement said more about his ignorance and prejudice than about religion and research or education.


Reflecting on the Ben Gurion University politics department conference as a whole, the main messages were two. First, academics’ right to be paid to write and teach what they please, even if destructive, should be regarded as an automatic entitlement. Post-Zionists are always happy to bring their views to the public’s attention in newspaper articles and advertisements, to teach them to their students and to attempt to sway public opinion. The only people they feel are not entitled to know about their activities are those who foot the bills. Both private donors and public funders are supposed to sign their checks behind a veil of ignorance, with no full picture of how their money is being used.  Public political activities and published writings by extremists should never be cited by anyone, except those who endorse their extremism. Anybody seeking to enlighten the general public or university donors should be shut up.  In the name free speech, speech is to be curtailed and information in which the public has a legitimate interest must be suppressed!

The second message is that the current administrative organization of Israel’s higher education system is just fine, and that any attempt to change it or increase accountability is tantamount to an attempt to curtail academic liberty.

Both these messages are self-serving and can only be maintained by a tendentious and artificial distortion of the ostensible subject of the conference’s debate.

If anything, those who complain about the effects of monitoring ought to complain about ignorant and unenlightened philistine donors (and possibly also Knesset members), who think views destructive of Zionism are not worthy of financial support.

This conference was an attempt to behead the messenger, not to contend with the message. For that, a full and free discussion would have to take place on the relative merits of academic “freedom” (including freedom to indoctrinate in extremist politics) versus academia’s responsibility to the public, and to public preferences freely arrived at and democratically expressed. Perhaps another conference, held somewhere else, will address these issues.


Op-Ed articles appearing on are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinion of