Im Tirtzu protest - Archive
An Im Tirzu protest on the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev campus after the IDF raid of a Gaza-bound flotilla in May. Photo by Archive
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If Ben-Gurion University of the Negev doesn't take steps "to put an end to the anti-Zionist tilt" in its politics and government department, Im Tirtzu will work to persuade donors in Israel and abroad to stop funding the university, the organization threatened in a letter to university president Prof. Rivka Carmi last month.

The group said it would ask donors to put contributions in escrow until "this tilt in the makeup of the department's faculty and the content of its syllabi has been corrected."

It also said it would "advise political science students to stay away from the university."

Finally, it gave Carmi one month to accede to its demands - which will be up tomorrow.

Until now, the university has not responded. But on Monday, the heads of all the country's universities issued a joint response.

"No Israeli university has to prove its staff's love of their homeland to any organization, and certainly not to a political one that is trying to present a tendentious, manipulative document as 'research' to advance its own public relations," the statement said. "As is proper in an enlightened democratic country, Israeli academia is not a political body, and academic faculty are chosen solely according to objective criteria of excellence in research and teaching."

The "document" in question, a report Im Tirtzu published several months ago on post-Zionism in the political science departments of Israeli universities in general, met with a tepid response from the universities. But the unprecedented direct attack on Ben-Gurion made them realize that any of them could be next - hence Monday's strong statement.

Prof. David Newman - the newly appointed dean of Ben-Gurion's Faculty of the Humanities and Social Sciences, who has been a tireless campaigner against efforts to impose an academic boycott on Israel - termed the letter "a clear attempt to threaten the university in an era of diminishing financial resources." Im Tirtzu's accusations against the department, he added, are "very far from the truth."

Though its earlier report's methodology was widely criticized, Im Tirtzu chairman Ronen Shoval and spokesman Erez Tadmor cited it in their July 18 letter to Carmi as the basis for their demands, saying it showed that the department's faculty "works deliberately and energetically to promote fiercely anti-Zionist messages."

They charged that nine of its 11 permanent faculty members were involved in "radical left-wing" political activity, and six had signed a letter supporting refusal to serve in the army; two of its research fellows "are known among the students for their anti-Zionist worldview"; and eight of its 19 adjunct faculty "express radical leftist views." As an example, they cited department chairman Prof. Neve Gordon, who has called for a "social, economic and political boycott of Israel."

They also said the department's course syllabi were heavily tilted toward "anti-national and anti-Zionist content."

The high proportion of "anti-Zionist" faculty in the department compared to the prevalence of such views in the general population "arouses grave suspicions that the main basis for acceptance into and promotion within the department is not professional, but political," the letter continued.

It also accused Carmi of "apathy that has enabled an academic dictatorship to overpower academic freedom."

"Out of honest concern for the student body's academic freedom and fear for the university's future, we urge you to put an end to the department's severe anti-Zionist tilt and its ban on Zionist students and researchers," the letter continued.

In other words, Im Tirtzu itself asked the university to introduce political considerations into the choice of its faculty.

It then asked Carmi to detail the "practical steps" she intends to take to comply with its demands within a month. If she refuses, "we will use all legal means at our disposal to inform present and future students, and especially supporters of the university both in Israel and abroad," the letter concluded.

Tadmor charged on Monday that the department has ceased to be a center of "academic excellence" and instead become "a hotbed of anti-Israel propaganda."

"The public expects university heads to stop rolling their eyes and provide clear answers as to why this department, and other departments at other universities, have become centers of anti-Israel propaganda and incitement and how they intend to deal with the matter," he added.

Asked how Im Tirtzu plans to carry out its threats, he said the issue has been already broached with some Ben-Gurion donors - "not just one or two" - and "this is only the beginning."

But he said the group does not plan to send similar letters to other universities. It chose to begin with Ben-Gurion, he said, because "to the best of our knowledge, the problem is worst there."

Officially, Ben-Gurion has decided not to respond to the letter. But one university source termed the demands "scandalous," a violation of "everything that is sacred to academia. The very act of responding to the letter would give this right-wing organization legitimacy."

Another university official said that most of the department's staff had immigrated from the West, and "there is no more Zionist act than that. The department also teaches air force cadets, who would not come if anyone thought we were preaching anti-Zionism here. It's ridiculous to start proving that we're Zionists."