A battle involving money and politics, academic freedom and threatening emails has hit an Israeli university after one of its academics took part in a Channel 4 documentary which has been accused of encouraging antisemitism.
At the centre of the dispute is Michael Gross, a prominent member of Britain’s Jewish community, a long-time donor to Ben-Gurion University (BGU) and a member of its international board of governors.
After seeing the Dispatches programme last month, Gross emailed Professor David Newman – a British-born lecturer who has emigrated to Israel – and wrote: “I saw your disgusting contribution to the Dispatches programme. I will use whatever influence I have at BGU to have you thrown out… I hope you perish.” In a second message, he said: “The sooner you are removed from BGU and the face of the earth, the better.”
The programme, presented by the British journalist Peter Oborne, was billed as the inside story of “Britain’s Israel lobby”, which the broadcaster’s blurb described as “little known” but “wielding great influence among the highest realms of British politics and media”. In fact, it acknowledged that the membership of groups such as Conservative Friends of Israel and Labour Friends of Israel was well known. But Jewish community leaders were angered by the programme’s tone and that almost all of those interviewed were sharply critical of Israel.
Last week, 120 BGU faculty members attacked Gross’s email. In a letter to Roy Zuckerberg, the chair of governors, a US philanthropist and former Goldman Sachs partner, they said Gross’s “hate mail” was a challenge not only to Newman but also to academic discourse and free speech. Saying that Gross should have “no place in the BGU community”, they urged Zuckerberg to demand that Gross apologise or sack him from the board. One academic said yesterday that he had signed the letter not only to support Newman, but because there was growing political pressure on many left-of-centre academics both from within Israel and major diaspora communities.
Gross told the Observer that he regretted “the language, but not the sentiments” in his attack on Newman. “I was furious. It was intemperate.”
He said that his threat to try to get Newman fired was “because I wanted to upset the guy. I wanted him to be as upset as I was.” But he added: “I am not going to apologise to him, because he deserves what he gets.”
Gross said he had “exploded” because of the fundraising implications for the university of one of its lecturers appearing on an “anti-Israel” programme. “We’re trying to mount a campaign to increase support for the university, and a guy like that just walks us back five years,” he said.
Gross qualified as an accountant in London, but went on to get a Harvard Business School degree and returned to Britain build up a successful property business in the 1980s. In Jewish community life, he became an often outspoken participant in debates on the religious direction and leadership of the community, as well as an advocate of strong support for Israel. In recent years, he has spent most of his time in Israel.
Newman revealed that he had lodged an official complaint against Gross with the Community Security Trust (CST), the body that monitors threats against British Jews. “If someone had written to any member of the Anglo-Jewish community with words like that, it would immediately have been reported to the police, and they would have wanted to know why it wasn’t being dealt with,” he said.
The academics say the issue is academic freedom. Gross’s emails, their letter said, “signal an attitude of total disdain for the principles of academic discourse based on open debate, and for free inquiry of any kind”.
One of Gross’s fellow governors said yesterday that Rivka Carmi, the university’s president, would be “caught between a rock and a hard place”. “She has to keep the faculty happy,” adding that in BGU and other Israeli universities there was no prospect of a professor getting sacked over political views. “On the other hand, she has to keep her supporters happy to give money to the university.”
Another governor, British lawyer Harold Paisner, said the tone of Gross’s emails was unacceptable. “It is one thing having a difference of opinion. But because you disagree with someone’s political views, to wish them dead and curse them – this is appalling. I am horrified.”
In his appearance on the programme, Newman, a political geographer who is editor of the international Journal of Geopolitics, did not directly criticise Israeli policy. In fact, after seeing the programme, he said he regretted having taken part. In a column for the Jerusalem Post several days after its broadcast, he said that the programme had been very one-sided.
Israeli universities increasingly rely on support from overseas donors. But diaspora leaders, particularly in Britain, feel they are facing an increasingly anti-Israel and antisemitic tone in politics and the media, causing tension with left-of-centre voices in Israeli faculties.