Shut Down the Universities

Israeli society is on the verge of being consumed by a menacing wave of McCarthyism stoked by nationalist movements and publicity-hungry legislators.

More than 20 years have passed since I served as president of Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva, but I still take an interest in what's happening there. So a recent headline in this newspaper caught my eye: "Im Tirtzu threatens Ben-Gurion University with donor boycott" (August 17 ). I asked myself how I would have reacted if I had faced such a predicament as the school's president. Afterward I heard my colleague, BGU President Rivka Carmi, condemn the threat in a radio interview, but in the next breath she played down the significance of Im Tirtzu's demand to fire left-leaning professors. Carmi holds the view that the university should ignore the organization and its letter.

I pondered her statements and came to a completely different conclusion: The threat posed by Im Tirtzu does not stand in a vacuum. Israeli society is on the verge of being consumed by a menacing wave of McCarthyism stoked by nationalist movements and publicity-hungry legislators. If we ignore this wave and it's not stopped immediately, it will endanger - perhaps even destroy - Israeli democracy.

According to Wikipedia, McCarthyism is the "political action of making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence." Unfortunately, this is what has been taking place here recently.

It is particularly sad that the authorities have kept quiet on the matter. No one is condemning this phenomenon, nor will anyone act to thwart it. We have not heard any remarks on this issue from the president, prime minister, Knesset speaker, chairman of the Knesset Education Committee or Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, chairman of the Council for Higher Education's Planning and Budgeting Committee.

I must acknowledge that I have my own criticisms of many of the people who have been "denounced and besmirched." I utterly reject their statements and positions. Nonetheless, I absolutely oppose any attempt to silence them. What is being tested now is not their positions but the shutting of mouths.

Apart from the New Israel Fund, most of the pressure is being put on the universities - certain departments and lecturers who are being pilloried for the sin of showing a lack of loyalty to the state, Zionism and the people.

If I were the university's president today, I would demand that we immediately hold a conference that would include the heads of all the major academic institutions and the Council for Higher Education to discuss the situation. My proposal would be the most serious threat possible to shake up the system. I would demand that the government and Knesset act immediately to stop this dangerous snowball from gaining momentum. Failure to do so would result in the closure of all institutions of higher education, and the new academic year would not open.

Im Tirtzu handed down an ultimatum to the university: Fire leftist professors or we'll dissuade donors from giving money. The donors, who include some of the university's good friends, will have to understand what the universities are fighting for and why they are shutting down. The danger of McCarthyism speaks to them even more than to the Israeli public. They will be the first to support the struggle for democracy; they will be the first to threaten to turn off the spigot of donations to Israel, and not just to the universities.

If we don't act immediately, and with all the tools the law provides, we will find McCarthyism inside our homes.

 The writer is a former head of Military Intelligence, director-general of the Jewish Agency and president of Ben-Gurion University.