Attempts to Impose 'Balance' Are Stifling Israel's Academia

A pungent stench of mediocrity accompanies the worldview of Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar.

More than the smell of political coercion wafts from Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar's declaration about a new ethics code for institutions of higher learning that ostensibly would guarantee an array of opinions. A pungent stench of mediocrity accompanies the minister's worldview.

Worried about coming across as a lowbrow commissar of the kind generated by totalitarian regimes, Sa'ar has refrained from making a clear statement about eliminating political content that does not adhere to the Israeli right's approach. But he is trying to entrench his conservative worldview - an outlook wrapped in a specious cloak of pluralism - in academic reading lists. Such syllabi, like the minister himself, will lack backbone.

Instead of suffocating the higher education system at once, the minister is killing it softly. Students will be exposed to a wide spectrum of positions, but not to critical approaches. Drowning in an ocean of prattle, they will conclude three years of a BA program in an addled, blind funk. Israeli academia will thus join a flat realm of public activity familiar for years to politicians and journalists. They call it "holy balance."

Workers in the state electronic media here know the drill: An invitation to left-wing representatives requires that right-wing delegates be brought in to respond, and vice versa. The interviewers must present the interviewees in an impartial, equal fashion, without taking a position or stating an interpretation; the listeners are to reach their own judgments. The problem is that many listeners adopt the interviewers' methods and refrain from taking positions on political agendas.

Readers of newspapers, especially the mass-circulation ones, are exposed to the same method. A right wing op-ed will be balanced by a left-wing one. The headlines will be sensationalist and populist, without taking a clear position, with exceptions made for bashing Arabs whether within Israel's borders or beyond.

The situation is even worse in politics. Once there were infuriating, bad-mannered opinions, and everything was clear. David Ben-Gurion was a pragmatist, Menachem Begin aspired to a Greater Israel, and there was a desire to toss the Communists out of the Knesset. Today it's hard to find a political party whose agenda doesn't include fervent support for peace, firm pledges to support the disadvantaged, and heartfelt pity for Holocaust victims who have survived Israeli society and who, at the end of their lives, need assistance.

Every two or three years a new political party rises like a shooting star, appearing for an instant to be unlike its lackluster surroundings. This apparently is the source of Yisrael Beiteinu's popularity, a party whose leader has no shame about his positions, even when they harm Israel's status around the world.

This desolation translates into a society where taking a position becomes a dirty word. The institutions Sa'ar wants to emasculate host students who have trouble adopting clear positions, since throughout their lives they have been immersed by the ethos of balance and have not been educated to be critical. Now students will hear a variety of views, but it's unlikely they will have anything insightful to say about research based on a considered worldview. It's likely there won't be time left to provide them with analytic tools for research and thought.

Should the Council of Higher Education put together ethics rules that undermine the agenda of Israeli intellectuals, academia will join politics and part of the country's media. It will become part of the same cud we chew every day: tedious, tasteless dough with lots of lumps.