Presenting his plan for NIS 7.5 billion in additional funding for higher education on Wednesday, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar described the reform program as "putting higher education back on the right track." Sa'ar's comment came at a critical juncture in relations between civil society and the higher education system: Right-wing groups that presumptuously claim to be defending the Zionist ethos are threatening to derail academia from its proper track.
Haaretz revealed earlier this week that the Council for Higher Education gave university heads the Institute for Zionist Strategies' report on the "post-Zionist" curricula prevalent in sociology departments. In response, Tel Aviv University's president asked sociology lecturers to provide him with their course syllabi. Following an uproar from within and without the university, this order was retracted.
Also this week, the president of Ben-Gurion University revealed a letter she had received from the Im Tirtzu organization threatening to urge foreign donors to withhold contributions unless the university took action "to correct the anti-Zionist tilt" of its politics and government department. The education minister, who once praised a report the group had drafted on what it termed the "post-Zionist" bent of political science departments, is now railing against Im Tirtzu's threat to intimidate donors, "independent of any arguments about pluralism."
The higher education system is not immune to external criticism over the quality of its academics or the proficiency of its administration. But a pluralistic, democratic society is incompatible with external interference in course curricula or lecturers' political views.
As education minister and chairman of the Council for Higher Education, Sa'ar must go beyond his feeble condemnation of the attempt to sabotage the universities' balance sheets. No financial assistance can preserve Israeli academia's prestige or ensure its excellence if the government, including the prime minister, does not unequivocally censure this attempt to undermine the independence of higher education.
Granting even tacit legitimacy to an internal boycott of institutions and lecturers that espouse "unpatriotic" narratives will merely legitimize a foreign boycott of Israeli academia.
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