ISRAEL: University defies right-wing boycott threat

The President of Ben-Gurion University of Negev has pledged to ignore threats by a right-wing political group to incite a boycott by international and other donors if staff and curriculum changes are not made. "We should never surrender to these pressures," said Professor Rivka Carmi.

The university and its politics and government department in particular came under attack recently by a right-wing political group, Im Tirtzu ("if you will it..."). The students' organisation has has taken the first few words of Zionist visionary Theodor Hertzl's famous lines, "If you will it, it is no dream" as its name.

Im Tirtzu sent a letter to Carmi threatening that if the university did not "put an end to the anti-Zionist bias in its politics and government department", it would work to persuade donors in Israel and abroad to stop funding the university until the "tilt" in the make-up of the department's faculty and in the content of its syllabi was "corrected".

Carmi said that the Im Tirtzu group "couldn't have found a better way to put this on the agenda. It took them half a day."

The university was reacting to Im Tirtzu's letter as well as a recent report by the group on post-Zionism in the political science departments of Israeli universities, which was sent via the Council for Higher Education to Israel's universities.

The group claimed that some university departments had become centres of anti-Israel propaganda and incitement.

Carmi said the organisation's letter did not merit a response. "As a matter of principle, I don't respond to letters that smack of threats or extortion, or in this case, of a witch hunt," she said.

This is not the first time Ben-Gurion University has been at the centre of a media storm.

A year ago Neve Gordon, a lecturer in the politics and government department, wrote in an article in the Los Angeles Times stating that he favoured a boycott of Israel.

At the time, Carmi rejected his criticism of Israel, strongly distanced the university from his views and condemned the academic boycott of Israel. However, she also said that faculty had to be judged on their merit, not their political opinions, and that it would be "immoral, undemocratic and unlawful" to judge otherwise."

The current clash between students purporting to uphold 'Zionist' ideology and academics and educators who uphold values such as freedom of speech and academic freedom, has raised serious questions as to what kind of higher education the country wants.

However, many mainstream educators have spoken out against Im Tirtzu.

In an unusual move, the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities denounced the group.

It said: "In a democratic state, we must vigorously defend with all available means the independence of academic institutions. As such, we cannot accept attempts by external and foreign bodies to intervene in appointing faculty members, determining curricula, and the manner in which material is taught."

Haifa University President Aaron Ben-Zeev said: "Im Tirtzu is a political organisation trying to dictate whom a university will or will not hire. This is academic destruction, the kind that will bring us to the type of situation prevalent in Iran or communist Russia."

Ben-Gurion University, which is a pioneering university in the Negev Desert in southern Israel with a student population of 20,000, has seen a doubling in the number of students in the politics and government department - from 85 undergraduate students in 2006 to 150 in 2009; and from 20 graduate students in 2009 to 40 in 2010.

Carmi, although worried about the possible affect of Im Tirzu's report and letter on university donors, said that the organisation she has to answer to is the Council for Higher Education, not Im Tirzu.