Andrew Lavin, spokesman for the New-York based American Associates of Ben-Gurion University, told Haaretz Tuesday that boycotting Israeli universities as a form of encouragement to stop anti-Zionist content being taught, was not a Zionist act.

" Israeli society has many different viewpoints, maybe even more diverse than we do, but calling for a boycott against anything academic in Israel obviously is not a Zionist act," Lavin said, adding that "if it happened in the U.S., I think there would be a national outcry."

Israeli college and university heads threw their support behind Ben-Gurion University on tuesday, sharply criticizing the letter drafted last month by a right-wing organization demanding the university "put an end to the anti-Zionist tilt in its politics and government department."

Lavin, who spoke to Haaretz after the letter was published, added that "our donors are smart people, and when people have questions we will explain the situation and they will see the truth. The nature of donating to the university is to understand it's a universe of thought, a pluralistic base that represent many views," he said.

"Our donors are providing money for groundbreaking medical research on diabetes and Alzheimer's, they are funding projects that foster worldwide desertification  helping to find ways to make the desert bloom  and most importantly, they are funding Zionist initiatives that are helping to develop the Negev. You might say that just being in Be'er Sheva is a Zionist act by itself," he added.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar also weighted in on behalf of the Be'er Sheva-based university, stating that he "rejects any move likely to harm donations to Israeli universities or subject them to conditions."

Yesterday Haaretz reported that Ronen Shoval and Erez Tadmor, chairman and spokesman of the group Im Tirtzu, respectively, sent a letter to university president Prof. Rivka Carmi last month threatening to encourage donors at home and abroad to halt contributions unless the university changed what the group called its biased curricula, and threatened to encourage political science students not to register at the university. Shoval and Tadmor gave Carmi a month to meet the demands.

Tel Aviv University President Joseph Klafter said yesterday, "Im Tirtzu's letter should set off red lights at every level, both in institutions of higher education and among decision-makers. I can't remember any similar threat against a university head."

University of Haifa President Aaron Ben-Zeev described the letter as "raising the bar for attempts by outside groups to politicize the academic system. The implications of these demands are that the admission of any researcher to the niversity would be accompanied by an inquiry into his or her political views, something we would never do.

"Im Tirtzu is a political organization trying to dictate whom a university will or will not hire. This is academic destruction, the kind that will bring us to the kind of situation prevalent in Iran or communist Russia," he said. Hebrew University President Menahem Ben-Sasson said the letter "gives us the opportunity to remind the public of a seemingly trivial point: Academic learning is conducted through arguing, deliberating and developing.

Ben-Gurion University's president responded in a manner blunter still.

"Im Tirtzu's letter doesn't merit a response," Carmi said. "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.

"What we need now is a strong, unequivocal public denunciation of this behavior by Im Tirtzu. Such a condemnation would prove Israel is an enlightened, democratic country," she said.

Beware the 'thought police'

Several university heads and directors of educational bodies signed a letter yesterday condemning the group's move.

"We see a great danger in the measures taken by political organizations to politicize academic institutions," the letter said. "Academic institutions choose lecturers on the basis not of their political views but on their academic excellence. We must condemn this dangerous attempt to create a 'thought police.'"

The education minister spoke at the beginning of the year at Im Tirtzu's annual convention, and several months ago spoke in the Knesset about a report the organization drafted on political science professors' supposedly "post-Zionist" bent. "I think the document is important in that it ignites the public discourse. It's important to examine the issues it raises," he told lawmakers.

Yesterday's remarks were Sa'ar's first comment on the affair, but several senior university faculty said he didn't go far enough. "He said nothing about Im Tirtzu's threat to call on students not to attend Ben-Gurion ... The education minister can't remain neutral about such things. His duty is to protect the education system under his control," said one.

Sa'ar declined Haaretz's request for comment.

Im Tirtzu representatives said yesterday, "The mudslinging, denunciation and hooliganism of senior figures at Ben-Gurion University and elsewhere in academia testify to the scope of silencing and persecution against anyone who doesn't fall into line ... Thank God we live in a democracy, and don't need anyone's permission to exist."