Campus wars hot up at Ben Gurion University
Assaf Oron is a research statistician at the University of Washington. He is also an Israeli peace and human rights activist who blogs at Daily Kos, the Villages Group, and was an IDF sarban, refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. Before he was named to his current academic post, he applied for a tenure track position as a statistician in Ben Gurion University’s department of industrial engineering. He was told a year ago he was the department’s top candidate. What he did not reckon was that his candidacy would generate a firestorm of controversy due to the machinations of a far-right member of the department nominations committee.
Prof. Israel David is an industrial engineer who teaches operations research at BGU. He was a major in the IDF before he retired after 11 years of service, and lives in an Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv. He has worked for the Israeli defense industry and a significant portion of his research is funded by either the IDF or military contractors. Prof. David’s political screeds are published regularly by Daniel Pipes-Campus Watch-type groups in Israel called Israel Academia Monitor and Isracampus. They take upon themselves the weighty responsibility of ridding Israeli campuses of Arab-loving, Israel-hating faculty like Dr. Oron. David’s views are also congenial to another far-right Israeli gang which targets Israeli academics with progressive political views, Im Tirzu.
Once David caught wind of Oron’s candidacy he went into high gear. Sitting on the department appointments committee, he lobbied his colleagues hard to deny the former the position. In meetings, he noted Oron’s political engagements and cited them as grounds for not hiring him. It rapidly became clear to the department chair, Dr. Gadi Rabinowitz that David was biased against the candidate and would not restrict his consideration to academic-professional criteria alone.
So Rabinowitz disbanded the appointment committee, created a new one and left David out of it. This infuriated the latter. He went to the media. He placed a story in Globes, the Israeli Wall Street Journal, in September 2009 for which he was an anonymous source. The article called Oron “a second Neve Gordon.”
This was shortly after Prof. Gordon wrote a controversial op-ed in the Los Angeles Times supporting the global BDS movement. After the latter published his article, the University’s president publicly invited Gordon to quit his position, which he uncooperatively refused to do. Prof. Rivka Carmi explicitly stated that academic freedom did not give a professor the right to support such an enterprise which posed a danger to the State of Israel.
Undoubtedly, Prof. David was emboldened by Carmi’s attacks on Gordon and saw an opportunity to continue the controversy by opening a second front against Oron.
But that first Globes story did not drum up the brouhaha that the engineering professor expected so he wrote his own story under his own name at the News1 site. In it, he quoted from confidential internal committee deliberations about Dr. Oron’s record, including his political views. Here is just a nugget:
The department chair summarized the proceedings by saying that Dr. Oron matched the position’s professional requirements but that he suffers from other “personality problems” [so reads the transcript of the meeting]. The committee asked one of the senior members of the department to take advantage of his summer sabbatical in the U.S. by speaking with Oron and asking whether he’d be willing to restrain his political activism in order to better assimilate into the department.
In most universities (though apparently not BGU), this is among the most sensitive functions that faculty members and a department can perform. Such transcripts are treated with sensitivity and guarded jealously. In most universities where I have studied or worked, publishing such material publicly would be grounds for disciplinary action. Not so Ben Gurion. Apparently there, faculty can skewer job candidates, smear their reputation, dredge up personal matters and political involvement, and use them as ground for denying someone a job.
In his article David levels a full frontal assault on the notion of confidentiality and claims that the concept violates court rulings. I have never heard of any such ruling either here in the U.S. or Israel and I’m reasonably certain that no court has ever ruled that enforcing confidentiality in such circumstances is a violation of law. Further, he argues that non-academic and even political considerations are rightfully within the purview of such committee discussions. In fact, I believe that David is here daring the University to either discipline him or take legal action against him. Which of course it would never do. A University dean confirmed to me that no disciplinary action is contemplated against David.
I also find it astonishing that an academic department would ask a job candidate to restrain his private political statements. What business is that of anyone either in academia or outside? Does this department and Ben Gurion as a whole not cringe in embarrassment at the thought that such a discussion occurred during deliberations concerning the hiring of a faculty member?
The University’s response to David’s onslaught against Dr. Oron was to claim that it “does not compromise the privacy of candidates.” Which of course ignores the fact that a duly appointed member of a University committee did just that. At no time during any of this madness did the University or department make any attempt to reach out to Oron, explain to him what was happening, or seek to mollify his concerns about the attack on his reputation. It never defended him personally or encouraged him in any way.
In addition, David accused the University of Washington lecturer of “disseminating hate against Israel” and comparing the IDF and its officers with Nazis. In truth, it was IDF officers themselves who made the comparison in a 2002 Haaretz article in anticipation of Operation Defensive Shield. They admonished the army to learn from all previous military sieges in history including, specifically the Nazi assault on the Warsaw ghetto. Oron merely called attention to this fact in his essay. Here is the salient passage from the Haaretz article:
…One of the Israeli officers in the territories said… it’s justified and in fact essential to learn from every possible source. If the mission will be to seize a densely populated refugee camp, or take over the casbah in Nablus, and if the commander’s obligation is to try to execute the mission without casualties on either side, then he must first analyze and internalize the lessons of earlier battles – even, however shocking it may sound, even how the German army fought in the Warsaw ghetto.The officer indeed succeeded in shocking others, not least because he is not alone in taking this approach. Many of his comrades agree that in order to save Israelis now, it is right to make use of knowledge that originated in that terrible war, whose victims were their kin.
Frankly, I’ve been writing on this subject for a very long time and this article was new to me until I read the essay in which Oron quoted the article. The idea that the army of the State of Israel should learn lessons from one of the most desperate and vicious assaults against Polish Jewry during the Holocaust era is not simply tin-earned or offensive, it is really a hillul ha-Shem, a desecration of God’s name. Does the IDF really want to be compared to Hitler’s killing machine at the height of its vicious assault against the brave Jews of the Warsaw ghetto?
Returning to David’s accusations in his column, much like abortion and other socially conservative ideas have been exploited as wedge issues against Democrats, Israeli rightists manipulate the Holocaust as a wedge issue in an Israeli political context. Like abortion for American conservatives, the Holocaust elicits a visceral response from Israelis. Whenever you can tar your opponent with terms like those David exploits, you’re almost guaranteed to put him on the defensive.
Finally in his article, David excoriates Oron for supporting the military refuser movement and notes longingly that there are countries in the world (North Korea and Iran undoubtedly) where refusal to serve is punishable by death.
Then Prof. David upped the ante, suing Rabinowitz for libel for 100,000 shekels and claiming that in removing him from the appointment committee the chair had slandered his good name. The rightist professor retained as counsel a leading far-right attorney who is also representing Im Tirzu in its libel lawsuit against an Israeli activist who created a Facebook group calling the group “fascist.” David’s brief, all the while claiming his own reputation was damaged, slanders Oron savagely.
As part of his legal campaign, yesterday Haaretz published an op-ed by David which called BGU “Bir Gurion University,” as if the campus’ left-wing faculty wished to turn it into an Arab university. The article was briefly available on the website’s main page, but now it’s been relegated to an inaccessible back page. A slightly different version has also been published by Yediot Achronot. Among the other smears David offers in Haaretz is to call a campus protest against the Gaza flotilla attack a “Nazi march.” Finally, he accused, again without proof, the campus peace activists of calling a faculty member’s son who died a “hero’s death” in Operation Cast Lead, a “Nazi criminal.” Even more shockingly, he calls the entire affair of Oron’s job candidacy and his own elimination from the appointment committee a “Nazi circus.”
In the year since he heard that he was the department’s top candidate, no one from the University had any contact with Oron, and certainly no one breathed a word of apology to him. In April, no doubt goaded by Prof. David, the student body president quoted the school’s president as saying that his candidacy was dead. Last week, on an Israeli Social Sciences listeserv, David waved this as evidence of the president’s support for his campaign.
After a year of absorbing these body blows to his reputation and not responding, Oron finally confronted his BGU nemesis on the listserv last week. He simultaneously wrote Pres. Rivka Carmi expressing concern with the smearing of his reputation and her supposed connivance with David to undermine him. Prof Rivka Carmi replied that she couldn’t possibly interfere with any candidate’s consideration by a department even if she wanted to do so. She also added the rather mysterious statement that Oron’s candidacy was “no longer relevant.”
Curiously Dr. Rabinowitz, the department chair, wrote to Oron yesterday claiming that when Pres. Carmi inquired about the status of Oron’s candidacy Rabinowitz told her that he was still very much an active candidate. The chair blames Oron’s supposed lack of communication with the department for his not getting the job, without realizing that after a candidate has been smeared it might be the responsibility of the department to contact him rather than the other way around. I’d say the truth is that after David went on the warpath neither the University nor the department wanted to hire him and they can find many reasons in retrospect to blame the victim for not getting the job.
What is also troubling is that after all of this madness, the chair expresses disappointment that Dr. Oron addressed David’s charges against him in the Social Sciences listserv where the latter had attacked him. It appears he would’ve preferred Oron to have remained silent and waited patiently for the school’s rejection letter.
A few days ago, Prof. David wrote triumphantly to Oron that the department had hired someone else for the job. Which means that David has won, that academic bullying has won; that anyone at Ben Gurion who has a political vendetta against a young aspiring academic can vent their rage and frustration in the most public of settings. They can sling mud at them, potentially harm their careers and no price will be paid.
In fact, after the University of Washington statistician defended himself on the Israeli listserv, an Israeli graduate student wrote to him that he had been denied a graduate fellowship by a Diaspora academic fund because his name appeared on the Israel Academia Monitor site. Though I do not know for certain which group participated in the witch hunt, one of the best funded such academic programs is the American-Israeli Cooperative Exchange, whose director is former Aipac flack, Mitchell Bard. Given Bard’s pro-Israel advocacy and ideological partisanship it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he used Isracampus, Israel Academia Monitor or NGO Monitor as arbiters of who should be denied funding for academic research.
Returning to Dr. Oron, luckily he has a good position at the University of Washington. Despite Prof. Israel David’s best efforts, one hopes he will fail in harming Oron’s career. But imagine the next young scholar applying for a job at BGU who has ‘questionable’ affiliations in his or her background. If such a person has several job interviews with Israeli academic institutions, why would they want to include BGU given the treatment afforded Oron?
Ben Gurion’s president honors academic freedom in the breach when it doesn’t cost her anything. When the chips are down, she folds like a house of cards. For example, when BGU Prof. David Newman was attacked by a British trustee of the University, who suggested he’d be happy if Newman died because the faculty member had aired views critical of Israeli policy in a TV documentary, Carmi remained mum. 140 of Newman’s colleagues demanded that she make a statement in support of Newman. In the face of alienating a wealthy donor, she shut up. Perhaps as a direct result of her pusillanimousness, Newman was recently named dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences in a vote by his peers.
Instead of leadership and conviction, Pres. Carmi tests the political winds to see which way they are blowing and follows suit. Currently in Israel there is a savage campaign against human rights and peace NGOs. The legal political activism of activists is under assault as never before. Astute individuals like David and Carmi understand this. The first exploits it and the second acquiesces to it. Neither response does either Israeli academia or Ben Gurion proud.
On a related note, yesterday the founder of Im Tirzu published a Haaretz column, The Fight for Academic Freedom, in which he contended, much like David Horowitz and Daniel Pipes in the U.S. context, that anti-Zionists have taken over Israeli campuses and that soon political correctness will prevent anyone not sharing such views from speaking their minds. Assaf Oron’s case proves the absolute falseness of this claim. If anything, it is the Im Tirzus and Israel Davids who are in the ascendancy on Israeli campuses, not the other way around.
Finally, what is one of the most obvious and elementary violations of both the candidate’s privacy rights and academic due process is that the job he was applying for had absolutely no political component. He was applying to be a statistician, not a political science or sociology professor. As such, his personal political involvement had nothing to do with the job and should’ve been ruled treif as grounds for review or consideration.