Over 300 faculty members of academic institutions all over Israel last week signed a petition protesting the Israeli Council of Higher Education's (CHE) subcommittee's decision not to allow Ben-Gurion University's Department of Politics and Government to register students beginning in the 2013-14 academic year. 

The decision, which still needs approval from the plenum, effectively closes the department.

“We sense that academic freedom in Israel's higher education system is in severe danger,” says the petition, initiated by Prof. Gilad Haran of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. “Closure of this department constitutes the first instance, but certainly not the last, unless the current trend is halted.”  The academicians, who include professors Ariel Hirschfeld of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Daniel Bar-Tal and Yehouda Shenhav of Tel Aviv University, said that “the new recommendations hint that the objective, closing the department, was determined in advance.” Such a move, it said, was “unprecedented.”

Other signatories include Prof. Galia Golan, a member of a previous CHE committee that pointed out problems in the department but refused to sign the report because it was influenced by political considerations.  Over the years, some of the department's staffers have been labeled radical leftists and accused of calling for an international cultural, academic and political boycott of Israel.  Im Tritzu, a group which says it promotes Zionist values, called on the university to “put an end to the [department's ]anti-Zionist tilt.”

More than a year ago the CHE set up an international committee headed by Prof. Thomas Risse of the Free University of Berlin, to evaluate departments of politics and government at eight Israeli universities.  The committee recommended a series of changes to be carried out at BGU's Department of Politics and Government, including enlargement of the academic staff and broadening the range of study in the discipline's core subjects.  As a result, the department added three staff members and updated academic programs

Though the changes received approval from members of the international committee monitoring implementation of the report, a CHE subcommittee decided to endorse a more stringent formulation that exceeds what the international committee had recommended, and is tantamount to closing the department.   Two alternative draft proposals, praising the progress in the department and not dealing with the possibility of closing it, were set aside.

In a letter last week, BGU president Prof. Rivka Carmi, who chairs the Committee of University Heads, asked the presidents of Israel's research universities to join the fight against the decision.  “At this time, when there are many internal and external threats against Israeli academic institutions, I request your support against this dangerous development which is taking place before our eyes,” she wrote.  “This is not Ben-Gurion University's private battle, but a struggle of all Israeli academic institutions...Ratification of the current decision by the CHE is like hoisting a black flag over the independence of Israeli academics.”

Foreign academics have also criticized the decision.  “If the committee intends to prevent scientific research that internationally known researchers are prepared to defend, Israel could lose the world's esteem,” wrote Prof. Richard Anderson, a UCLA political scientist.  Prof. Eric Sheppard of the University of Minnesota, president of the American Geographical Society, said that such a move would have “damaging consequences, not only in Israeli academia's relations with the world, but also with the effort to attain knowledge and understanding everywhere.”

The Council for Higher Education said in response that it “rejects the calls which indicate a lack of understanding of the decision, the committee of experts and the subcommittee that were accepted unanimously.”  According to the council, “it would be better if the institution (Ben-Gurion University) were to act, rather than to conduct a campaign to assure that the department's work would be based solely on academic standards.”