x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Israeli university political unit at risk over stance on settlers

Ben-Gurion University staff criticise threat to shut down department of politics as a violation of academic freedom and a warning to other institutions to support settlements.

TEL AVIV // The political science department at one of Israel's largest universities has become the latest battleground between the country's anti-settler movement and those who want to advance Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Israel's top higher education body, which is chaired by Gideon Saar, the right-wing education minister, and includes other pro-settler board members, will this month rule on possibly closing Ben-Gurion University's department of politics and government.

That department is frequently attacked by hard-line politicians and ultranationalist organisations because some of its professors are prominent left-wing activists, including a former department chair who has called for a general boycott against Israel because of its West Bank occupation.

The head of the university also opposes the proposed upgrading to university status of a college in the Jewish settlement of Ariel, a step that the left claims would grant Israel greater prominence in the West Bank and give its occupation more legitimacy.

The possible shutdown would be the most significant state-backed move taken in recent years against intellectuals who publicly oppose the Israeli settlement enterprise, critics say.

Professors at Ben-Gurion and other universities have criticised the threat to close the department as violating academic freedom, and also as a warning to all Israeli universities to avoid appearing left-wing when they decide on whom to employ, promote or put on study programmes.

"Even if they don't succeed in closing the department, they have already won because they have issued this warning to the whole of Israeli academia," said an individual involved in the university's battle against the shutdown who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Previous steps against left-wing professors and university officials in recent years include a threat by Mr Saar to "punish" any university or lecturer supporting a boycott against Israel. Israel's predominantly right-wing parliament last year also passed legislation that denies state funds to institutions questioning the country's Jewish character.

Mr Saar has been accused of trying to "re-Zionise" the education system by bringing soldiers to speak in classrooms, and installing a programme for students to visit the West Bank city of Hebron, where about 800 settlers live among 30,000 Palestinians, to show them its Jewish roots.

The decision due on October 23 by the council of higher education, which is charged with accrediting all universities and their study programmes, to prevent Ben-Gurion's political science department from registering new students would effectively close it.

The university and its supporters have already launched a campaign to raise a public outcry.

Ben-Gurion has appointed a lawyer and is mulling over legal action against the council of higher education. Last week, more than 300 Israeli professors signed a petition protesting against the possible move. Furthermore, a website called Israeli Academia Under Attack has been lobbying for international support, drawing to its cause prominent figures such as Robert Paxton, a Columbia University historian and one of the world's most prominent scholars on fascism.

In a letter posted on the site, Mr Paxton wrote: "In a 40-year academic career, I have never known of so severe a punishment for an academic department in a university in a free country."

Gilad Haran, a professor at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science who initiated the petition, said there is "shock" about the possible shutdown in Israeli academia. He added: "There is a lot of debate on websites and in the corridors of universities - this is viewed as a big step in the wrong direction."

Right-wing criticism of Ben-Gurion's political science department, founded 12 years ago and employing 11 faculty members - significantly less than its counterparts at other universities - has been widespread. Israeli television has reported of students secretly filming the classes of Neve Gordon, perhaps the faculty's most politically outspoken member, and then passing on the recordings to right-wing groups.

The process leading to the department's possible shutdown was launched in 2010, when the council of higher education appointed an international committee to scrutinise the political science departments of Ben-Gurion and other Israeli universities.

Ben-Gurion officials say the committee's work was influenced by right-leaning academic officials. In its final report, the committee's most controversial criticism against Ben-Gurion's department was against what it called the "strong emphasis" on political activism.

One committee member, Galia Golan, an Israeli expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict, refused to sign the report, saying it was influenced by political interests.

In July, a letter to the council by committee members indicated they were satisfied with several changes made by the department, including how new appointments were made.

Nevertheless, the council appeared to ignore that letter and last month a subcommittee recommended preventing the department from registering students next year.

The international panel that originally scrutinised the departments has also condemned the possible shutdown. The Haaretz newspaper reported this week that the panel's members, in a letter to the council, criticises the move as too extreme and indicated that Ben-Gurion was being unfairly targeted.

The council has refused to directly comment on the upcoming decision. It has criticised the university for considering legal action, rather than focusing on reorganising its political science department in accordance with the international panel's conclusions.