International academics seek to keep ‘biased’ department at Israeli university open

More than 150 Israeli and international academics have asked Israel’s Council for Higher Education to ignore a call for Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to consider closing its politics and government department unless major changes are made to it. The department has been accused of having an “anti-Zionist” bias.

Faculty members from universities including Yale, Columbia and Cornell signed a petition to say they were convinced that the recommendations of an international committee assessing eight of Israel’s political science departments were politically motivated. They are asking the council to ignore the section about closing the Ben-Gurion University department.

The council is also being asked to affirm its commitment to academic freedom.

“Such an affirmation would be particularly important at this time, when free speech, judicial independence and the autonomy of civil society – indeed the heart and soul of Israeli democracy – are all under attack by powerful right-wing forces in Israel,” the petition states.

The Council for Higher Education endorsed the committee’s findings late last month, so it would have to reverse itself if it were to accede to the petition’s request.

The international committee, headed by Thomas Risse, a professor of international relations at the Otto Surh Institute for Political Science at the Free University of Berlin, called on Ben-Gurion University to hire more faculty and make other changes. More controversially, it also said it was “concerned that the study of politics as a scientific discipline may be impeded by such strong emphasis on political activism.”

Neve Gordon, a professor in the department, has come under fire for speaking out in support of boycotting Israel.

In a widely condemned step, in August the Im Tirtzu movement, which describes itself as working to strengthen Zionist values in Israel, demanded that the university “put an end to the anti-Zionist tilt in its politics and government department” and threatened to encourage donors to stop contributing to the university.

The signatories to the petition, meanwhile, said the committee that recommended shutting down the department has a history of political maneuvering.

According to the signatories, the committee did not want Ian Lustick, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, on the committee because he was considered too left-wing on Israel. The committee’s original chairman, Robert Shapiro of Columbia University, resigned in protest and was replaced by Risse.

The petition was signed by professors including Judith Butler, who is leaving Berkeley for Columbia, as well as Yale’s Immanuel Wallerstein, Sidney Tarrow of Cornell and Columbia’s Ira Katznelson.

In Israel, signatories include Oren Yiftachel of Ben-Gurion University, Menachem Klein of Bar-Ilan University and Yoav Peled of Tel Aviv University. Other signatories are from countries including Brazil, Cyprus, England, Germany and Mexico.