Tuesday, 12 April 2011

A Bitter Return to Politics at Israel's Bar-Ilan U.

Bar-Ilan University has a scarred past when it comes to politics.

In November 1995, Yigal Amir, a Bar-Ilan law student, shot and killed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as he left a peace rally in Tel Aviv. The assassination cast a grim shadow over Bar-Ilan, Israel's only religious university, whose founding philosophy is to combine "Jewish identity and tradition with modern technologies and research."

Some observers wondered aloud whether the university's religious values had contributed to the killer's extremist politics, and Bar-Ilan immediately banned all political activity on the campus and engaged in a deep soul-searching.

Today, Bar-Ilan is again being roiled by political controversies. A right-wing student group has accused some academics at the university of having connections to anti-Zionist, if not anti-Jewish, elements, while several left-wing faculty members have accused the university of denying them promotion because of their views.

Nasty political debates have affected other Israeli universities, but recent events at Bar-Ilan show that a university that has tried to moderate extreme political viewpoints can still be challenged by them.

For many years after Mr. Rabin's assassination, public political activity remained largely on hold at Bar-Ilan, except for occasional, carefully choreographed public debates on national issues, held just off-campus.

Then, two years ago, the Forum for the Land of Israel, a right-wing student group, demanded the reintroduction of political activity, citing Israel's laws on freedom of speech and political expression. Last fall Bar-Ilan's student union, with the university's tacit approval, said it was reviving political activity on the campus, within carefully supervised parameters, and invited students to join the debate in the pages of the student newspaper. In March, the union sponsored a Political Awareness Week, a fair with booths representing the full spectrum of Israeli politics, and a trip to the West Bank guided by both Peace Now and the Yesha Council, which represents Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

"We believe as a student union that students must be involved in society and the community," Orel Lahav, a student-union spokesman, said in an interview with The Chronicle. "Students must be part of political life. We have to ensure that the discussion is sensible, appropriate, pragmatic—and it shouldn't, God forbid, slide into incitement that could lead to the murder of a prime minister, as happened in 1995."

Student Activism

Ranen Shwartzman, a law student who founded the Forum for the Land of Israel, said his 200-member group wants an open and robust political discussion on the campus.

"We don't want only right-wing groups to act here," he told The Chronicle. "We know that because of the structure of the population here, the right wing will be stronger than the left wing. We are in favor of every political view being heard."

However, the forum has been accused of demonizing and suppressing views, among both students and faculty members, that it deems not Zionist enough. Last June a left-wing professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University pulled out of a symposium organized by the group after it was advertised with a photo montage that replaced his head with that of a hooded terrorist. The forum also objected to Bar-Ilan's giving several hundred Arab students a Muslim prayer room and an Arabic-language exam coach.

More recently the group has begun to extend its campaigns beyond student activism into Bar-Ilan's faculty affairs. In February a private meeting held by the law faculty between Israel's top international and human-rights law professors and Navanethem Pillay, the United Nations' high commissioner for human rights, was canceled by the university after protests by the forum.

"Anything the forum don't like, they try to cancel," said Mr. Lahav. "The forum are on the edge. Not a few times they have been warned that they have gone too far. On several occasions they have crossed the line."

He called the cancellation of Ms. Pillay's visit "an act of cowardice."

In March the forum accused the law faculty of consorting with anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish groups and called for an "in-depth public discussion" of their allegations.

In contrast to the Pillay incident, when Bar-Ilan acceded to the forum's demands, Haim Zisovitch, a university spokesman, condemned the group's "false accusations" and said it was attempting to "defame" the law faculty.

"The forum is doing enormous damage to the university," said Elad Caplan, a law student who heads a moderate political-religious group. "It's creating hate between Arabs and Jews. Bar-Ilan is irrelevant when it comes to left-wing politics. No one in Bar-Ilan is promoting an anti-Zionist agenda. They are manipulating fear and using demagoguery to create conflict between left and right, between secular and religious. It's really terrible."

Controversy Over Job Denials

The revival of student political activity comes at a particularly sensitive time for Bar-Ilan. In recent months, it has been accused of denying promotion to two prominent left-wing instructors because of their politics.

Menachem Klein, a lecturer in political science, was rejected for the rank of full professor for the second time in five years. Ariella Azoulay, a lecturer in cultural studies, was denied tenure last year after 10 years teaching at the university. Seventy prominent Israeli faculty members wrote to Bar-Ilan in protest, accusing it of "political persecution."

In April, Tova Cohen, a professor accused of connections to liberal causes deemed suspect by some university officials, resigned as director of gender studies after the university rejected the recommendation of the dean and a departmental search committee that her term be extended.

"The key positions in Bar-Ilan are taken by very radical people, political rightists," Mr. Klein told The Chronicle. "They are committed to the so-called purification of the university from so-called leftists."

The university said no political agenda was involved in the cases of Mr. Klein and Ms. Azoulay. "The two are convinced that their promotion was declined due to their political viewpoints. Bar-Ilan University adamantly denies this," said Mr. Zisovitch. "The criteria for promotion before the appointments committee are solely of an academic nature and based upon the academic achievements of the candidates in their field of expertise."

But a university appeals committee agreed enough with Mr. Klein's concerns that it recommended a new evaluation of his application. His proposed promotion to professor will be re-examined by a panel of experts in his field.

Mr. Klein's rejection has divided faculty members who know his work. Efraim Inbar, a professor in the political-science department who has made no secret of his opposition to Mr. Klein's promotion, rejects any accusations of political bias. "In our department, in which there is a leftist tilt, it's simply an accusation that doesn't hold water," he said to The Chronicle before the appeal committee made its decision. "Klein is trying to intimidate the university. I thought he hadn't published enough, and not in good-enough journals."

But Nathan J. Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University who was an external referee in Mr. Klein's application, called the rejection "simply puzzling."

"I am aware of concerns that it may be politically motivated. I am in no position to judge those concerns, but the outcome is a strange one," he said. "If this decision is based on scholarship, then it appears to me to be an easy one. Indeed, it is both open-and-shut and overdue. The publication record itself is easily comparable to those of more advanced rank. He has a sterling record in the academic field."

It is unclear what effect, if any, those faculty controversies will have on the decision to permit student political activity on Bar-Ilan's campus. Senior officials refused to discuss the issues with The Chronicle, aside from short statements delivered through the university spokesman.

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