Israeli Universities Accused of anti-Zionism (FT 26/8/10)
Israeli Universities Accused of anti-Zionism
Israel’s universities are normally a source of national pride. Widely acclaimed for groundbreaking research in fields ranging from archaeology and chemistry to mathematics and economics, the country’s leading institutions have become serial claimants of Nobel prizes.
Recently, however, the academic community has found itself at the centre of political controversy. The argument focuses on accusations that important departments are dominated by leftwing “anti-Zionists”, whose teachings are geared towards criticism of the government and army.
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Ironically, this means that Israel’s universities are under attack from all sides. Foreign critics have repeatedly tried to single out their professors and lecturers for an academic boycott. Last year, the University and College Union in the UK, the largest professional association of British academics, voted to boycott Israeli universities, though the resolution was not implemented because it was held to breach anti-discrimination laws.
Too Israeli for some, and not enough for others, the country’s universities appear to be caught in the middle of a broader conflict.
Accusations about their supposed leftwing bias are not new. But the charges took on a sharper edge when one rightwing pressure group declared it would urge donors to stop funding Ben-Gurion University (BGU) unless its president ended the institution’s alleged leftwing slant.
The ultimatum came in a letter from Im Tirtzu, a small but highly visible group of rightwing activists who say their goal is to “strengthen the values of Zionism”. Erez Tadmor, one of the group’s founders, says the letter was prompted by “dozens of complaints” from politics students at BGU saying they were being “brainwashed” by “professors [who] are there to promote anti-Zionist and radical leftist propaganda”.
Mr Tadmor claims the department is run like an “academic dictatorship”. A survey by Im Tirtzu found that eight out of 11 senior faculty members were “radical leftists who sign petitions against the state”.
The university has rejected the charges, saying that its social sciences department is so popular among students that it has been turning away applicants for months.
Meanwhile, a study by the Institute for Zionist Strategies, a rightwing think-tank, asserts that almost all sociology departments in Israeli universities are dominated by a “severe anti-Zionist bias”. The allegations stem from various sociology syllabuses, which were found to contain only 146 references to sources classified as “Zionist”, but 440 to those considered “post-Zionist”.
University presidents have described the study as a crude attempt to undermine academic freedom. But Joseph Klafter, president of Tel Aviv University, did ask for a review of teaching materials in his sociology department; he later backtracked.
David Newman, dean of the social sciences department at BGU, says the attacks are causing real concern. “We should be alarmed. We have to be very wary of political interference within the debate process and the academic process.” Avishay Braverman, the minorities minister and a former president of BGU, went further, denouncing the assault as “borderline fascism”.
The latest charges echo harsh public attacks on peace activists and human rights groups earlier this year. In both cases the controversy has raised concerns over an Israeli strand of “McCarthyism” that attempts to silence dissent.
Israeli universities, as well as non-governmental organisations of all political persuasions, depend heavily on donations from the US and Europe. The bulk of that funding is almost certainly secure, but universities admit that the charges of leftwing bias have led some donors to rethink. Mr Klafter said last week that one supporter had decided to switch funding to another institution, because of a decision by some academics at Tel Aviv University to support an academic boycott of Israel.
Prof Newman said there had been similar tensions at BGU. Like most academics, he believes the recent accusations are doing more harm to Israel, particularly its international reputation, than any leftwing bias on the country’s campuses. “We have a very clear attempt to shut down voices – and I think that is tremendously damaging to Israel’s image as a pluralistic society.”