It has been a troubled year for Israeli academia. The rising nationalist sentiment in the government, legislature and civil society has spilled over into bitter struggles on campuses throughout the country. Nationalist groups such as IsraCampus, Israel Academia Monitor, and the ultra-nationalist Im Tirtzu have set their crosshairs on academia, seeking the dismissal of faculty members and control over curricula, and urging foreign donors to withdraw funds unless the faculty they have targeted are removed. They have published blacklists and ranked each university and department according to political legitimacy. Much of the fire has been directed at Ben Gurion University (*).According to an NRG story that appeared after the interview below, one donor threatened to suspend funds if certain political positions were not officially repudiated by Ben Gurion's administration (Hebrew).
One striking result has been the politicization of very basic social concepts that should be part of the consensus, concepts once considered to be above politics. Thus the term "democracy," is viewed by the ultra-nationalists as a left-wing political ideology, and it is increasingly de-legitimized in Israeli discourse. The concept of human rights is even more controversial. For the ultra-nationalist students and organizations, the term "human rights" symbolizes one-sided support for the Palestinians and subversive attempts to destroy the state. The liberal universalism that underlies human rights values is anathema to a parochial notion of state, and clashes with the creeping raison d'etat.
Therefore, a human rights conference planned by the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University in early April was a white-hot target for the nationalists. Im Tirtzu launched a well-orchestrated campaign to pressure university president Professor Rivka Carmi to cancel the conference, on the pretense that it was not "balanced." Dr. Dani Filc, the Department chair, responded that seven right wing speakers had been invited but declined to come. Still the demands continued, reaching University officials, Minister of Education Gideon Saar, the chair of the Knesset's Education Committee, Alex Miller (Israel Beitenu). The conference was held as planned.
In this charged environment, Professor Neve Gordon agreed to be interviewed for +972. Professor Gordon was Chair of the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University for much of this controversial period. He is the author of Israel's Occupation and an outspoken critic of Israel's government policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. He is very close to the issues, having been the target of no small controversies himself in the past.
BEN GURION UNIVERSITY HAS BEEN IN THE EYE OF THE STORM. WHAT HAS BEEN THE SITUATION AT BEN GURION UNIVERSITY OVER THE LAST YEAR?
There's an assault on Israeli academia in general. It involves an alliance between forces such as IsraCampus and Israel Academic Monitor on the one hand, who try to convince donors to stop giving money to universities that harbor leftists, and Im Tirzu, which tries to mobilize government Ministers and Members of Knesset to pressure the top university executives to discipline recalcitrant academics. There's an alliance between elements in civil society, a handful of donors, and the government to stifle academic freedom and criticism of Israeli policy. The phenomenon is not only in the academic sphere"it also includes, for example, the attacks on the human rights organizations in Israel.
As I understand it, the assault has a twofold objective. The idea is to prevent the flow of information from Israel abroad, and because both academics and the Israeli human rights community have strong networks outside of Israel they are the one's currently targeted. Simultaneously, there is an attempt to stifle internal debate, by reducing the limiting discussions about policies that lead to social wrongs and more violence and aggression.
HAVE THEY SUCCEEDED?
To a certain extent. We are seeing a totally new phenomenon in Israeli academia: students sitting in class, filming the classes and then passing information on to the monitor groups and the media. The recordings are almost always edited, so the information doesn't reflect what really went on in class.
Such students consider themselves to be class monitors , rather than people who have come to the university in order to study, broaden their horizon and expand their knowledge"not unlike the McCarthy era in the US, some Israeli student see themselves as agents of the state, as spies.
DO YOU MEAN THEY'RE NOT COMING TO CLASS TRULY TO LEARN, BUT RATHER TO GET AFFIRMATION FOR THEIR OPINIONS?
Some are open-minded and some are less so"We are blessed with excellent students; I think the student qua spy is still a small minority. But they definitely exist.
Another issue is foreign donors. Donations are a relatively small percentage of the budget, often 10% or less. Yet the donors wield immense influence"The monitors send information to donors in the US or England and a handful of these donors send letters to university administrations pressuring them to stifle academic freedom.
So there are attacks from Knesset and from foreign donors, and the mechanism of academic monitors feeds both.
WHAT ABOUT ISRAELI DONORS?
There are very few. But I believe they would be less influenced, because the sphere of legitimate discourse is still much broader inside Israel,when it comes to criticizing government policy.
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