Head to Head With Joseph Klafter

TAU President Joseph Klafter, is academic freedom in Israel at risk?

Right-wing organizations stepped up their attack on Israeli academic institutions this week with the publishing of Im Tirtzu's letter to the president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Prof. Rivka Carmi. If she did not take steps to correct the "anti-Zionist tilt" in the department of politics and government, the movement would call on students not to study political science at Be'er Sheva. Im Tirtzu would also persuade donors in Israel and abroad to stop funding the university.

TAU President Joseph Klafter,
Alon Ron

Also, following the publication of the Institute for Zionist Studies' report on the alleged post-Zionist tilt in sociology studies, lecturers at Tel Aviv University's sociology department were requested to send their syllabi to the office of the university's president, Prof. Joseph Klafter.

Prof. Klafter, is academic freedom threatened in Israel?

I'd like to believe that the system of higher education is strong and stable enough to take care of itself and protect freedom of expression and academic freedom, two concepts at the basis of research and teaching at the universities. At the same time, I must admit that there have been some frightening indications of harm to academic freedom; for example, the attempts to interfere with the content of materials being taught. I hope it's still possible to contain these phenomena.

Have you come up against threats like this?

During the last meeting of the board of trustees a few months ago, some of the members raised a suggestion to hold back the promotion of lecturers who support the academic boycott of Israel, or even to dismiss them. I didn't allow a discussion on the issue. Even though I am opposed to any kind of boycott, I believe it's the right of lecturers to express their points of view even if it annoys me ....

One of the donors told me I wouldn't receive donations if I continued to support the right of these lecturers to freedom of expression. I told him that yes the university needed money but accepting his point of view would be tantamount to shattering the very basis on which all academic institutions are founded. This donor decided to donate to another institution. Beyond that, it's hard to know if there has been a decrease in donations because of this attitude, since the world economic crisis also has an effect.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar has said action should be taken against Israeli lecturers who support a boycott against Israel.

Statements of this kind are not acceptable to me. I approached him a few weeks ago and met with him on this issue. I tried to explain to him that I - as the head of a university system - have to protect freedom of expression and academic freedom, and that he - as head of Israel's education system - has to be as careful as possible to avoid harming these principles.

Today we are referring to lecturers who make statements against the current government, but tomorrow it will be [against] another government. The moment protection for freedom of expression is breached, it will be extremely difficult to return to the status quo ante. I still hope he will accept my point of view. If something good comes out of all the hullabaloo of the last few days concerning these issues, it is that the universities, the media and, I hope, public opinion have been aroused and now understand the dangers.

Why is it that the reports by Im Tirtzu and the Institute for Zionist Strategies are dangerous?

We are talking about attempts to interfere with academic content. The basis of research and teaching at any university is the freedom to express an opinion even if it is not acceptable to [others]. This is the freedom that allows a researcher to question what his teacher did, and the student to question what his lecturer taught him. The moment we restrict these two values, we are imposing a threat to the future of research and thought. It's good that the universities, the media, and I hope also public opinion, have woken up to this now. This is truly a menace.

According to the reports, the public should not have to pay for post-Zionist points of view in academia.

The public pays for higher education thanks to the added economic, cultural and security value that the academic world produces. This is only on account of the pluralism and the spectrum of views that exist at the universities. Moreover, the assertion that particular studies are or are not tilted is always relative to the person defining them. Who has authorized Im Tirtzu to define what Zionism is? Is theirs the only Zionism? This is a crazy approach aimed at introducing a very well-defined political line at the campuses.

Why did the universities want to examine the syllabi of the sociology courses that were accused of being post-Zionist?

We received the report of the Institute for Zionist Strategies from the director general of the Council for Higher Education. In my opinion, the council or the Committee for Planning and Budgeting should not send the universities the mail of any fringe group, either from the right or the left. After receiving the report, the [president's] office asked to look at the syllabi mentioned in the research as a first step and to figure out how to treat it. I did not have the slightest intention of supervising the material studied in the sociology courses, and certainly not of intervening and changing the contents. I don't have any intention of carrying out an examination or anything similar.

Beyond that, what's frightening in the whole story is that the decision-makers at the highest levels tend to rely on reports of this kind to intervene in academia.

Have you read the Institute for Zionist Strategies' report?

The starting point of the report's authors, I think, was to mark a target and adorn it with supposedly reliable statistics. It's impossible to divide the world into Zionists and anti-Zionists. That's not scientific and not serious .... We accept faculty members and promote them only on the basis of their scientific quality. Any other consideration when accepting or promoting lecturers is not acceptable and can harm the level of research. This report was meant to sow fear at the universities and to introduce political elements into the system of academic considerations. Reports of this kind will not change the manner of studying or our conduct.

What is your response to the criticism by rightist organizations of academia and Tel Aviv University?

Anyone who criticizes the university for lack of concern about the values of Zionism does not understand that precisely the pluralistic environment we are trying to maintain is the cornerstone of the Zionist and democratic vision on which the state was founded. Only through maintaining a fruitful environment for discourse will it be possible to raise generations of citizens with awareness of the basic democratic and liberal values.