Ben-Gurion University
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Be’er Sheva campus. Photo by Eli Hershkowitz
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The international committee that recommended a series of changes be made at Ben Gurion University's Department of Politics and Government has denounced a decision by Israel's Council of Higher Education to shut down the department.

The department has been accused in the past of having an "anti-Zionist" bias.

The international committee, headed by Thomas Risse of the Free University of Berlin, called on Ben-Gurion University to hire more faculty members and make other changes. More controversially, it also said it was "concerned that the study of politics as a scientific discipline may be impeded by such a strong emphasis on political activism."

Neve Gordon, a professor at the department, has come under fire for speaking out in support for boycotting Israel.

However, rather than implementing those recommendations, an Israeli Council for Higher Education subcommittee decided to close the department altogether, forbidding it register students as of the 2013-14 academic year.

Two alternative draft proposals, praising the department's progress and not mentioning the possibility of closing it, were set aside. In a letter addressed to the CHE, the members of the international committee wrote that they were not party to the decision to close down the department and questioned the motive behind the move.

The international panel presented a letter, which Haaretz has obtained, accusing the CHE of taking only punitive measures against the Ben-Gurion University department, while ignoring recommendations regarding the political science department at Bar-Ilan University. Moreover, the panel noted that the measures taken against the BGU department were far more extreme than those recommended.

Over the past week, more than 300 faculty members of academic institutions all over Israel signed a petition protesting the CHE subcommittee's decision.

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.”

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 that says it promotes Zionist values, called on the university to “put an end to the [department's] anti-Zionist tilt.”

In wake of the department's closure, Ben-Gurion University has opened a legal proceeding against the CHE. In an unusual move, an attorney for the university sent the CHE a letter in which he charged, "The actions of the sub-committee… were intensifying the disappointing, hard feeling that the subcommittee's position regarding the university's Department of Politics and Government was oppositional, and stems from secret agendas, which are not academically relevant, and which the CHE was not at liberty to consider… especially in light of clause 15 of the Council of Higher Education Law, which defines academic freedom."

The letter goes on to demand the CHE hand over all documentation and data pertaining to the department, accompanied by an explanation regarding the "false accusations made against the university."

An official at the CHE expressed surprise over the university's to "pursue legal action on the backs of taxpayers, instead of acting to correct academically what an international panel of experts required of it."

In contrast to what was written by the international panel, the CHE responded that "pertaining to the issue in Bar-Ilan University, the institution submitted an action plan in accordance with the committee's recommendations and needs to make further changes." Regarding the letter, the CHE said "The sub-committee's work was being done with coordination with the panel of international experts."

Bar-Ilan University responded that "The international committee that checked the departments in all the universities found advantages as well as deficiencies. Actions are being taken to correct them and these actions are being reported to the CHE."