Sunday, 13 September 2009

An Israeli Professor Tests the Limits of Academic Freedom

An Israeli Professor Tests the Limits of Academic Freedom 1

Ben-Gurion U. of the Negev

Neve Gordon's call for a worldwide boycott of Israel as "an apartheid state" has raised a fierce debate about academic freedom far beyond the confines of his campus at Ben-Gurion U. of the Negev.

September 13, 2009

By Matthew Kalman

A bitter and very public debate in Israel has raised difficult questions about how far an academic can go in criticizing his own institution while continuing to work there.

Last month Neve Gordon, chairman of the department of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, branded Israel an "apartheid state" in an op-ed essay in the Los Angeles Times. He called for an "international boycott" of his country, including his own university.

The university's president, Rivka Carmi, quickly shot back an angry response. In the same newspaper and in a letter to faculty members, she noted that Mr. Gordon, a tenured professor, could not be "readily dismissed." But, she said, he had "forfeited his ability to work effectively within the academic setting."

Both Mr. Gordon's attack on Israel and Ms. Carmi's attack on one of her faculty members have inspired impassioned debates in Israel and beyond.

The Israeli Social Science Network, an online forum that usually carries notices of conferences and opportunities for financial support, was transformed into a heated intellectual battleground as Israeli academics debated the implications for academic freedom in the country. Nearly 200 tenured faculty members in Israel signed a petition supporting Mr. Gordon's right to freedom of expression.

Chilling Factor?

The professor's future at Ben-Gurion seems assured by the legal protection he enjoys through tenure, but many of his colleagues say they find his position untenable. Many others support and admire him, while still others disagree vehemently with his opinions but defend his right to express them. Nagging questions persist about whether the controversy will dissuade junior faculty members and students from freely expressing their opinions.

"I was not surprised by the fact that the president of the university and people in Israel disagreed with me and even disagreed with me vehemently," Mr. Gordon said in an interview with The Chronicle. "I think it's part of some of the people's job, and I think that's what they were supposed to do."

But he said that suggestions he should leave Israel or be sacked "went just overboard."

Ms. Carmi said she had spent years defending the right of her rebellious political-science professor to express his radical views about Israeli policy, but that this time he had gone too far.

"If I had lived in South Africa when it was an apartheid country, I would have left," she told The Chronicle. "I wouldn't be able to live in a country that I believed was an apartheid state."

"I don't understand how he can carry on doing his job in an institution that he is damaging by his very public comments. I don't understand how he can condemn the university and continue to take the salary that it pays," Ms. Carmi said.

"There is an inherent contradiction between calling for academic boycotts and fulfilling the responsibilities of leading an academic department in research collaboration, publications, and international conferences," she said.

Ms. Carmi said Mr. Gordon's opinion essay had branded Ben-Gurion as a radical, left-wing university and was endangering potential donations, crucial for future development. Several major donors have written to say they will no longer support the university unless action is taken against him, she said.

Mr. Gordon said he accepted that there was "tension" between his support for a boycott and his duties as department chairman, and he said he had considered stepping down. But he called Ms. Carmi's comments "a form of harassment and intimidation."

"My stepping down as department chair would have caused so much damage to academic freedom in Israel that we could not do it," he said. "If someone has to lose his position as department chair because of his opinion, however controversial, it creates a precedent."

'A Disservice' to Peace

Alon Tal, a veteran peace activist and associate professor of desert ecology at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at the university, said Mr. Gordon had done "a disservice" to the peace camp and undermined the work toward Israeli-Palestinian coexistence at which the university excels.

"The country is in a state of war—let's not lose that context," Mr. Tal told The Chronicle. "People forget that. And you go to our enemies and you give them comfort and you strengthen their activities, and most of all you take actions that you know will damage your own university that supports you. That I find unacceptable."

He said Mr. Gordon should resign as department head and apologize. "When you take on a position as a head of department, you represent an institution. You don't represent just yourself," Mr. Tal said.

Uri Ram, head of Ben-Gurion's sociology department, agreed but drew different conclusions.

"There is a tension between a call to boycott Israeli universities and working in them and promoting them," he said. "Yet it should be left to Dr. Gordon to decide whether he can perform properly as department chair with this contradiction or not. He should not be sanctioned with discharge because he expressed an opinion. He is entitled unequivocally to freedom of expression."

Mr. Ram said he would resign as department head if Mr. Gordon was forced to step down, and he urged his colleagues to do the same.

'The Stakes Are Quite High'

The online petition in support of Mr. Gordon's academic freedom was started by Alon Harel, a law professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He said he "vehemently" disagreed with Mr. Gordon's opinions but warned that it would be "death for Ben-Gurion University" if Mr. Gordon were not allowed to express them.

"The stakes are quite high. The stakes are the future of Israeli academia," he said. "It would be a great loss to Israeli universities if people completing their Ph.D.'s and looking for a job believe they cannot teach at Ben-Gurion because their positions are ones that the president of the university does not tolerate."

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, said he was disturbed by Ms. Carmi's attitude but encouraged by the debate it had aroused.

"The kind of statements that Rivka Carmi has made have an immense chilling effect on untenured faculty from exercising the same freedom of speech," he said. "If Neve Gordon had been untenured and had written this op-ed and then came up for tenure, a president who says this oversteps the boundaries of academic freedom would seem implicitly willing to fire him."

"One of the greatest challenges for any nation-state is to protect the free-speech rights of its citizens and its faculty members during times of war," Mr. Nelson continued. "My own country has repeatedly failed that challenge. Israel is hardly alone in finding it difficult to meet the challenge of sustaining freedoms in wartime. The rest of the countries in the Middle East wouldn't even consider such a thing. In Syria they already would have shot him. In Iran they'd just beat him to death in a jail."

"I do think it is valid in thinking about the status of these freedoms in Israel," Mr. Nelson said, "to recognize that Israel is practically the only country in the Middle East where you could even have this debate."

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