The threat to academic freedom in Israel's universities

August 22, 2010
Richard Kuper

haaretz.comTwo academic stories

Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s response to the Im Tirtzu threat: “Quite apart from claims about pluralism in Israeli academia, I denounce any move that could damage donations to Israeli universities.” In other words: Don’t threaten the money.

Chaim Gans, 22 August 2010

Story number one: Around six years ago, I received an award from the law faculty at Tel Aviv University for a research paper I wrote. The award, which until then was won annually by another researcher, was funded by an important donor to the department and was named after him. My lecture on the occasion was based on an academic paper comparing the Law of Return to the law denying family unification to Palestinian citizens of Israel. Both are discriminatory laws and can be seen as means to control the demographics of Jews and Arabs in Israel.

My argument was that discrimination in favor of Jewish immigration to Israel – although in a somewhat humbler version than that of the current Law of Return – would be acceptable if there were a Palestinian state engaging in similar discrimination in favor of Palestinians. As for preventing reunification of Palestinian families, I argued that this would be unacceptable even if there were a Palestinian state, because unlike the Law of Return, the family-reunification law directly and unequivocally impinges on Israeli citizens’ basic right to set up a family where they live. For this reason, I argued, this law is even more beyond the pale than the proposal by then-MK Michael Kleiner to subsidize Arabs to emigrate, a proposal the presidium of the 15th Knesset deemed so racist it barred the parliament from even debating it.

The donor then asked the dean, Prof. Ariel Porat, to give the award the next year to someone whose conclusion expressed rightist positions. Porat didn’t hesitate to inform the donor that such considerations would not play a role in choosing laureates for awards given by the department. The laureates, said Porat, would be chosen based on the quality of their arguments, not on the values or politics of the conclusions. The donor canceled the award.

Story number two: Some 15 years ago, Gideon Sa’ar, now education minister, took part in a seminar I taught at the same department on freedom of expression. The most difficult article we studied was a philosophical essay that dealt with the great importance of not limiting content, whether based on its veracity or political values. This would preserve the legitimacy of the democratic political authority. Sa’ar, who had no philosophical training, presented the argument with impressive clarity.

The rest of the story can be told using press reports. A few months ago, Sa’ar spoke at the annual conference of Im Tirtzu, wishing the movement every success. This week, Im Tirtzu threatened the president of Ben-Gurion University that it would sabotage donations if the president did not end anti-Zionist bias in the politics and government department. Sa’ar’s response to the threats: “Quite apart from claims about pluralism in Israeli academia, I denounce any move that could damage donations to Israeli universities.” In other words: Don’t threaten the money. We’ll take care of the political content in teaching and research.

I’m no strategic consultant and I don’t know what Sa’ar needs to do to gain power in Likud and the right wing in general. I also don’t know what the leaders of universities should do to retain their donors. If Sa’ar wants to preserve the legitimacy of political authority in Israel – a legitimacy he once eloquently explained as dependent on avoiding the state’s monitoring of political content – he should act like Porat. He should most certainly act like Porat if he wants Israel to have an academia, and the university heads should take example from Porat all the more.

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