Ben-Gurion U. Debates Cost of Academic Freedom

By Nathan Jeffay

Published September 02, 2009, issue of September 11, 2009.
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An Israeli academic’s call for an international boycott of Israel has set off threats of donations being withheld from his university and sparked a fierce debate over academic freedom.

Persona non Grata: Ben-Gurion University politics department chairman Neve Gordon has been under fire from his school’s administration since calling for a boycott of Israel.
Persona non Grata: Ben-Gurion University politics department chairman Neve Gordon has been under fire from his school’s administration since calling for a boycott of Israel.

In an August 20 Los Angeles Times opinion article, Neve Gordon, chairman of the politics and government department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, called Israel “an apartheid state” and wrote that an international boycott is “the only way that Israel can be saved from itself.”

Gordon has long been an outspoken critic of his country’s policies toward the Palestinians and writes regularly for left-wing publications abroad. The publication of his call for a boycott in one of America’s leading newspapers, however, struck a nerve — and has drawn fierce denunciations from his university’s administration, as well as from its American fundraising arm.

“Academics who entertain such resentment toward their country are welcome to consider another professional and personal home,” said BGU’s president, Rivka Carmi, in an August 23 statement.

The American Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev goes further. “He should be brought up for disciplinary action — whatever is legally possible,” AABGU spokeswoman Ronni Strongin told the Forward on September 1. Asked to clarify what she meant, she replied: “If it were legally possible and a disciplinary committee thought it appropriate, we would like to see him dismissed” from the university.

In her statement, Carmi announced that the university was “exploring its options concerning Gordon’s actions.” Since Carmi’s initial statement, university officials have ruled out dismissal and have been noncommittal on the issue of disciplinary action, saying only that they are “considering options.” They have made it clear, however, that they want him to step down as department chairman.

Carmi’s initial statement provoked outrage from some Ben-Gurion University faculty members. Forty-eight BGU academics signed a letter to Carmi demanding that she safeguard Gordon’s academic freedom. “Dr. Gordon has the right to publish his views on any matter, has done nothing wrong and should not be censored or sanctioned,” Isaac Nevo, a senior lecturer in philosophy at BGU and the organizer of the letter, told the Forward.

The row quickly spread to other Israeli universities. Alon Harel, a Hebrew University law professor, coordinated a petition demanding that BGU not punish Gordon for expressing his views. It was signed by 180 academics from across Israel. “The issue here is academic freedom and the ability of academics to write articles reflecting their views,” Harel told the Forward. Harel and Nevo both said that they oppose efforts to boycott Israel.

On August 27, BGU’s rector, Jimmy Weinblatt, met with signatories to Nevo’s letter and reportedly said that the university will not attempt to revoke Gordon’s tenure. But he is said to have raised the issue of Gordon’s departmental chairmanship and to have asserted that it is inappropriate for Gordon to stay on in this post. University officials maintain that support for a boycott is incompatible with a chairman’s responsibility to promote his department in the international arena.

Nevo said he felt that Gordon “may consider stepping down” from the chairmanship, though he cautioned that he was not pressuring him to do so. “I do think that his chairmanship is not covered by academic freedom,” Nevo said. “There is no right by an academic to hold an administrative position of power.”

In an interview with the Forward, Gordon admitted that there is “a contradiction” in his chairmanship and that it could cause “some problems.” He said that he has reservations about academics visiting Israel for conferences — terming it “extremely problematic,” unless their visit somehow highlights what he regards as the injustices of the Israeli occupation.

But he insisted that his backing for a boycott will not affect his day-to-day work. He said that the department will continue to draw international visitors for an overseas program, which is headed by a colleague, and for conferences, which for several years have been organized by colleagues and not by him. He added that he will support members of his department in whatever way they ask, including by attending conferences that attract international contingents.

He said, however, that the prospect of him stepping down as chair has “become an impossibility.” He said that the chairman job, which brings only a small salary bonus, “is not something I like doing — it’s an administrative job and I prefer doing my research — but to [step down] now would be to bow down and seen as punishment for expressing my views.”

Gordon said that pressure to get him to step down from department chair is fueled by fundraising considerations. He said that AABGU operates on the premise “that when you elect someone for department chair you have to think about what the donors like.” This is a “very dangerous assumption” and could lead to “the destruction of a university as you know it,” he said.

University officials denied Gordon’s charge that fundraising considerations were driving their response to the controversy. Faye Bittker, BGU’s director of public and media relations, said that the university would welcome his resignation as department chairman irrespective of the fundraising factor. That position was echoed by AABGU’s Strongin. “No university can have donors demand who is hired and who is fired, and we are not saying that,” Strongin said. “This is a case where we are in agreement with some donors who find his comments reprehensible.”

This is not to say, however, that the fundraising fallout from the controversy has not been a matter of concern for university officials.

“We’re doing everything we can to limit the fallout of Dr. Gordon’s latest editorial in terms of lost resources to BGU. This is an increasingly difficult task,” wrote AABGU’S executive vice president, Doron Krakow, in an August 27 e-mail to David Newman, a BGU politics professor. The e-mail, which was obtained by the Forward, was sent in response to a message from Newman criticizing AABGU’s conduct in the controversy.

BGU, like other Israeli universities, is funded mostly by the Israeli government. But almost 60% of all private donations to BGU come from the United States. In the 2007-2008 fiscal year, donations to BGU totaled $51.5 million.

The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, Jacob Dayan, wrote to Carmi that he had been contacted by donors who were “unanimous in threatening to withhold donations.”

Bittker said that AABGU has “genuine and real concerns about the effect of this on fundraising.” She said there is also concern about the university’s “brand.”

“Today people aren’t canceling checks,” she said. “But people getting direct mail or considering a Ben-Gurion event could say, ‘That’s the university with *that guy.’”

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