Rightist pressure prompts Tel Aviv University head to examine syllabi

Professor says believes university ordered the check in order to ‘protect academic freedom against McCarthyism.’

The president of Tel Aviv University asked to see the lists of reading material taught in several sociology courses at the university last week, in the wake of allegations that Israeli universities have a “post-Zionist” bias in their sociology departments.
Tel Aviv University

Students at Tel Aviv University.
Photo by: David Bachar

The Institute for Zionist Strategies, which issued the report, defines post-Zionism as “the pretense to undermine the foundations of the Zionist ethos and an affinity with the radical leftist stream.”

This was the latest in a string of complaints by right-wing groups against Israel’s universities over the past year.

Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar has at least partly backed similar criticism. The founding chairman of the Institute for Zionist Strategies is Israel Harel, a former Yesha Council of settlements head and a Haaretz columnist.

Several Tel Aviv University lecturers criticized president Joseph Klafter’s request yesterday.

“Right-wingers are trying to divide and label people in academia in a process designed mainly to sow fear. The university president shouldn’t have cooperated with such an attempt,” one said.

The university administration said that after it received the report from the Institute for Zionist Strategies, the president’s office approached the relevant parties to ascertain the situation in a routine manner.

The university has stated that since this is Klafter’s first year as president, he is intensively studying what is being taught at the university, and this includes reviewing course syllabi.

About a week ago, the institute published a nearly final draft of its report, called “Post-Zionism and Academia.” The report surveyed various articles used in courses about Israeli society and categorized the authors of the articles as either Zionist or post-Zionist. The draft states: “The group of critical sociologists has gradually taken control of the sociology departments on some of the campuses, and this continues to this day, despite the Israeli public’s weak identification with [the group’s] positions.

“At all of the universities other than Bar-Ilan, there is a clear post-Zionist bias in the sociology departments, which is especially great at Tel Aviv [University] and [at Ben-Gurion University in] Be’er Sheva.”

The paper says final figures from the courses examined shows syllabi contained 146 sources the authors defined as Zionist and 440 sources deemed post-Zionist. It adds that the group has been conducting consultations over recommendations for decision makers in Israeli academia.

Several days after the latest draft was published, the secretary of the Tel Aviv University sociology department wrote to the department’s lecturers, saying that Klafter’s office had requested syllabi for several courses and that anyone who wanted more information as to why this was being done should contact the president’s office directly.

Students studying for a bachelor’s degree in sociology are required to take all but one of the Tel Aviv University courses noted in the report.

One of the department’s lecturers took issue with the report on the grounds that researchers cannot be “categorized as Zionist or post-Zionist, as if those are the only two possibilities.”

Yehouda Shenhav, one of the professors whose course reading list was requested, said: “I have no doubt that the president and rector requested [the syllabi] to protect academic freedom against McCarthyism.”