Left and Right at the Lectern

The discussion by a faculty appointments committee of a candidate's political views - which was against usual policy, and was also leaked to the press - has spurred an academic and legal furor at Ben-Gurion University.

When Israeli expatriate Assaf Oron, a researcher in statistics at the University of Washington, Seattle, applied for a post at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, he had no inkling that he would become the subject of a public controversy and, indirectly, a court case as well.

Ben Gurion University
Eli Hershkovitz

In the spring of 2009, Dr. Oron, who had been active in the left-wing Courage to Refuse movement, which describes itself as "a group of IDF reservists who pledged to refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories," submitted his candidacy for a position in BGU's department of industrial engineering and management. On July 1, 2009, the departmental appointments committee met to discuss his candidacy. Along with his academic credentials, the panel also discussed Oron's political leanings.

Such committee discussions are supposed to be confidential, but last September 7, the Globes business daily published a report stating that members of the committee had brought up "problematic aspects of hiring Oron, in light of his views." The item added that one member even "declared that he would act assertively to persuade his colleagues to vote, when the time comes, against offering tenure to Oron."

The member who took this stance, and was also responsible for the information that reached the newspaper, was mathematician Israel David. On September 20, Prof. David went so far as to post on his personal blog an account of the committee meeting. He wrote: "After one of the members brought up the subject of Oron's activities against Israel and the Israel Defense Forces, the department head decided to study the Internet posts he had written."

David added that, during the discussion, he declared his intention to oppose Oron's appointment. He wrote: "Various opinions were exchanged there. The department head started by claiming that Dr. Oron could be an asset to the department on account of the 'social sensitivity' he displayed when he went to 'care for children in Nablus.'"

In the end, David noted, the committee decided to ask a senior member of the department, who was planning to travel to the United States, to meet Oron and "get an impression from him, as to whether he would agree to downplay his political activity, should he be appointed."

In the summary of the meeting, according to David, Oron was described as "being very good in professional terms, and he has good recommendations with regard to his social skills. [But] there is a need to think about whether he would come here and forgo his political activity, and concentrate solely on academic matters."

David's consternation was caused largely by an open letter published by Oron in 2002 (which was also quoted in the Globes report ): "Does Israel have a monopoly on labeling its enemies as Nazis," Oron wondered, "and does everyone else need to keep quiet when realities speak for themselves?"

For his part, Oron claims today: "That quote, of course, was taken completely out of context. I have no special proclivity or sympathy for using Nazi images. The passage Mr. David is using to try to distort things expresses a concern about the one-sided censorship applied in Israel when it comes to regulating references to itself, while the political right and even the center use Nazi images all the time."

Meanwhile, members of BGU's faculty who belong to similar appointments committees have told Haaretz they know of no other cases involving the disclosure of such a panel's confidential discussion, nor have they heard of a case where a candidate's political views were seen as a criterion affecting his or her candidacy. Prof. Natan Kopeika, a member of a more senior-level appointments committee, recently told Haaretz: "I have never come across an appointments committee that deals with a candidate's political views."

For the record, BGU's spokesman adamantly asserted that "the contents of appointment proceedings are confidential, and the university will absolutely not discuss them in media outlets."

A month after the committee meeting in question, the dean of the university's engineering faculty, Prof. Gabi Ben-Dor, instructed the then-head of the department of industrial engineering, Prof. Gadi Rabinowitz, to disband the appointments committee, and to hold elections for new members. David says the dean wrote him that "your suggestion that you oppose the hiring of a candidate in your department and your unequivocal declaration that, should this candidate be hired, you will act against his tenure on account of his political views, and not on the basis of academic assessments - all this disqualifies you from serving on any appointments committee."

In early September, a new departmental committee was elected; Israel David was not a member. Shortly afterward, Globes disclosed the contents of the earlier, supposedly confidential meeting.

Legal morass

After the original committee was disbanded, Prof. David sued Prof. Rabinowitz for slander, claiming that on August 18, the dean had circulated an e-mail harshly denouncing David to 75 faculty members. In his suit, David argued he was being "depicted as someone who acts in an unusual fashion not suited to the work routine of an appointments committee, and as a person who does not uphold rules of ethics and integrity."

Rabinowitz's lawyer wrote the court in his defense that the "claimant wantonly violated his obligation to guard the confidentiality of committee meetings, and divulged the secret contents of the discussions ... In his allegations, the claimant does not distinguish between the objective foundations that are required to substantiate a libel claim, and a legitimate report about a relevant topic concerning the actions of a worker, subordinate to him, who deviated from acceptable norms of conduct, and from academic regulations."

With regard to the committee's conduct and its apparent political nature, Rabinowitz asserted that "the discussions did not, as the claimant alleges, address the candidate's political views; instead, they addressed the issue of whether his political activity might prevent him from discharging his academic obligations, or whether lines distinguishing between his [political] activity and academic work might become blurred."

David responded that he opposed Oron's appointment "out of a concern that BGU could in the future be perceived as an institution that deviates flagrantly from the Jewish-Zionist consensus."

He also referred to an incident last year when Dr. Neve Gordon, head of the university's politics and government department, published an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times calling for a general boycott of Israel. In response to that article, David said, BGU president Prof. Rivka Carmi expressed her fears about possible damage to the institution and sent a letter to faculty members saying, "I feel an obligation to share with you my concerns about the grave damage and the acutely dangerous implications regarding the university's economic standing, and its academic and social reputation, along with its professional prestige and the loyalty displayed by each and every one of you."

Carmi added that "academics who feel this way toward their state should be invited to look for another [professional] home."

Right-wing organizations that monitor the academic left have long claimed that BGU's faculty of humanities and social sciences - particularly its department of politics and government - is characterized by an abundance of staff belonging to what they see as the radical left.

Prof. David Newman, who has been recently appointed dean of the faculty of humanities and is generally associated with the left, suggests otherwise: "Persons from groups like Im Tirtzu and NGO Monitor regard us as a band of traitors, criminals and leftists. In actual fact, we are a faculty of 250 members from all parts of the political spectrum."

Clarifying facts

With respect to the lawsuit, David told Haaretz recently that "the facts will be clarified in an orderly, authoritative way in the trial conducted on this matter in the Be'er Sheva Magistrate's Court." An important conclusion that should be forthcoming is the imperative of maintaining transparency in university appointments committees.

For his part, Rabinowitz recently told Haaretz: "The matter is pending, in court, and I will reply there to all claims."

University officials say that, between July 2009 and the present, Oron made no effort to promote his candidacy. In June, however, in response to an e-mail from Oron, department head Rabinowitz informed him that he would not be offered a position. "On the basis of purely professional calculations, the [new] committee selected another applicant, regarded as the most qualified," BGU told Haaretz. Responding to the question of whether the committee's discussions were influenced by non-academic considerations, the university stated: "The discussion of Oron's candidacy was conducted in a correct fashion, in accordance with usual procedures."

After Oron was informed that he would not get the position, Seattle-based journalist Richard Silverstein first published the story on his blog. Oron told Silverstein that a professor in the department had told him he was considered a top candidate.

Oron is disinclined at present to believe that his candidacy was rejected by the second, new appointments committee on political grounds. Nonetheless, he says he was discouraged from trying to advance his candidacy since it had become a public, political matter.

"Since my candidacy was opposed by a person who acted toward me in a thuggish manner, it seemed wrong for me to take the initiative and announce the withdrawal of my candidacy to the university. To have done so would have been to award bullying with a prize," he says, adding, "By leaving my candidacy intact for a period, I gave BGU an opportunity to rectify its acts - to apologize, to stage a professional discussion of my candidacy, perhaps to clean its stables a little. But they did not take advantage of this opportunity."

Oron is still troubled by the episode's implications regarding future discussions of candidates for academic posts. "In my opinion, the real danger is that David set a precedent in this case. In effect, he rewrote the norms of what is permitted and prohibited concerning candidate appointments, and sanctioned flagrant politicization in the academic appointment and promotion processes."

Furthermore, BGU, Oron says, bears a special burden of responsibility for possible acts of public defamation. His was an "unprecedented case concerning a candidate for a lecturer post, in which the defamer presented himself as the upholder of the university president's attitude vis-a-vis 'those who hate the Jewish people' on campus."

In the meantime, David published an article in early July of this year on the Ynet site, entitled "Bir-Gurion," in which he wrote: "Neither this particular professor nor any other professor is responsible for the fact that BGU is perceived as being in second place when it comes to anti-Israel views - after Birzeit University."