Ben-Gurion University Slammed for Nixing Breaking the Silence's Prize

Middle East Studies Association writes to the university's president, Prof. Rivka Carmi, in which it calls the incident an unprecedented level of administrative interference and an infringement of academic freedom.

A tour organized by Breaking the Silence tour in the West Bank city of Hebron.
Olivier Fitoussi

Families of donors to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have protested the decision of the university's president, Prof. Rivka Carmi, to nix the Middle East Studies Department's decision to award a prize to Breaking the Silence.

Meanwhile, the Middle East Studies Association published an open letter to Carmi, in which it calls the incident an unprecedented level of administrative interference and an infringement of academic freedom.

Haaretz reported last week that, in an unusual step, Carmi nixed the department's decision to award the Berelson Prize to Breaking the Silence. The award is given annually to individuals or non-profit groups that have promoted understanding between Jews and Arabs.

Faculty at Ben-Gurion University and other institutions have also criticized this decision, which stated, among other reasons given, that the group was “outside the national consensus” and that giving it the award "could be interpreted as ostensibly reflecting political bias.”

Israel Radio reported on Tuesday that two relatives of past donors have told the university that they will cease their donations.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“As a veteran supporter of the university – my father established the Swiss Friends of the university – I’m ashamed of your position. I’ll devote my efforts and money to a more democratic institution,” Michael Weiler from Switzerland wrote to Carmi.

Yuval Dor, a family member of another donor, wrote that even though he wasn’t a wealthy American donor, only someone whose uncle had donated his small estate to the university, he wished to express his humiliation and anger at the decision.

“This is an organization I identify with due to its good intentions and deeds. If the university won’t do business with Breaking the Silence because it lies outside of your consensus, it should return my family’s money, since it apparently also lies outside your consensus," he wrote.

The Middle East Studies Association wrote to Carmi to protest the decision a few days ago. "Your decision to cancel the Middle East Studies Department's decision is a clear example of interference with the department's autonomy and a violation of academic freedom," it said. "We urge you to reverse your decision, respect the collective will of your faculty, regardless of Breaking the Silence’s relationship to a purported ‘national political consensus,’ and award the prize to the organization.”

The university responded that Weiler had made donations between 1991 and 1993, but not since then. He remains on the board of governors out of respect to his parents who had contributed significantly larger sums. “In the opinion of senior university officials, an announcement of a halt of donations by someone who has stopped donating almost 25 years ago is puzzling.”

As for Dor's request to get back the sum of the donation, the university said there was no legal basis for such a demand.

It added that “no one disputes the fact that the role of academia is to foster open and critical discussions on a variety of topics, including controversial ones. Ben-Gurion University does so faithfully, while preserving freedom of speech and academic freedom. Indeed, there was recently a conference on ‘Breaking the Silence over the generations,’ to which members of the current group were invited and at which they spoke.

“However, awarding a prize signifies recognition and respect that imply taking a stand and lending support to the recipient. Such as stance is not part of the university’s mandate, since it includes individuals holding diverse opinions. It is certainly not within the purview of one department to speak in the name of the entire institution.”

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article reported that donors had halted their support after the award Breaking the Silence was revoked. The article has been corrected.