Politics at Ben Gurion May Eliminate Politics in Class

A Political Department Under Threat

Academic Independence: Ben Gurion University houses many professors with left-wing views.
Dani Machlis
Academic Independence: Ben Gurion University houses many professors with left-wing views.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published October 07, 2012, issue of October 12, 2012.
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Golan objected so strongly to this line of criticism that she refused to sign the panel’s report. She told the Forward that she believed Ben Gurion was treated far more harshly than other institutions, saying: “The quality and quantity of attention given to Ben Gurion University was different to other universities, and that was because of political considerations.”

The panel concluded that both political identity and academic approach were cause for concern.

The department leans towards an interdisciplinary approach, and panel members felt it needed to bolster teaching of skills for the systematic study of political science and increase the number of faculty members oriented toward this “methodological core.” If this was not fixed, as a “last resort” Ben Gurion should consider closing the department, the panel wrote.

Acting on this feedback, the Ben Gurion department made three new appointments, prompting the panel’s praise. In July, Risse and Immergut studied the credentials of the new appointees and wrote to the CHE to “congratulate the department on successfully recruiting three new faculty members in the areas of comparative politics, quantitative methods, and political theory, and for its plans for a fourth recruitment next year.”

Then, in September, came the CHE subcommittee recommendation to close the department.

It prompted widespread speculation among social scientists that springtime appointments in the CHE by the strongly nationalist education minister, Gideon Saar, had brought in right-leaning academics who were behind the new hard line toward Ben Gurion.

The CHE did not respond by press time to requests for comment, but Hebrew University political scientist Abraham Diskin, a member of the evaluation panel, discussed its reasoning with the Forward and defended it. “The subcommittee of the CHE, from a professional point of view, believes that in the case of two out of the three [academics] they have hired, [they are] more of the same,” he said.

Diskin insisted that he was not referring to their political affiliation but the fact that only one of the three is an expert in the kind of methodological research that his panel recommended bolstering.

Newman, who is the founder of the Ben Gurion department and dean of humanities and social sciences at the university, responded: “It is nonsense that because two or three new recruits are not in the ‘positivist’ field of science you can recommend closing a department.”

The CHE is coming under heavy pressure ahead of its October 23 meeting to decide against closure. Ben Gurion is threatening legal action if the CHE goes through with its recommendation, and hundreds of scholars from Israeli universities and abroad have signed petitions echoing Carmi’s view that closure would constitute a setback for academic independence. But some on the Israeli right respond that they have unrealistic expectations.

“The so-called academic freedom claim by universities in Israel is exceptional and far beyond that in the U.S.,” claimed Joel Golovensky, founder and president of the Institute for Zionist Strategies think tank. “Academic freedom does not preclude the government that supplies funds overseeing how they are spent.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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