'Honoring an Anti-occupation NGO Isn't a Statement Ben-Gurion University Wants to Make'

On the line with Prof. Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Prof. Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Hello, Prof. Carmi. Nir Gontarz from Haaretz here. How are things?

Who’s speaking to me?

Hold on, is this her honor, the president of the university?

Yes, but who is speaking?

Nir Gontarz from Haaretz.

Hello.

Hello. How are you?

I’m just fine.

Good. Well, you probably know what I’m calling about.

Uh No You know what? There are several issues.

Such as?

The donation the university received.

Ah, yes. You received $400 million.

It will take care of the university in terms of development and its contribution to the Negev and to Israel. I think it’s a very exciting development, one that makes us very happy.

I’ve never handled a sum like that, or a tenth of it, or a thousandth. Just to put things in proportion, what is your annual budget?

First of all, just so we understand each other: I’ve never handled an amount of money like that, either. Not in private and not in public. The university’s budget is a bit more than 1 billion shekels [about $250 million] a year.

I see. And apropos “contributing” to Israel – in your opinion, the NGO Breaking the Silence doesn’t contribute to public discourse in the country, right?

Not right!

Then why did you cancel the decision of the university’s Middle East Studies Department to award the organization a prize of 20,000 shekels for its contribution to society? After all, money isn’t the problem.

It’s oh

What? I don’t hear you well.

I’m driving. Just a minute. Now do you hear me better?

No. You’re driving and your voice is breaking up on the phone. Maybe you can pull over to the side for a minute?

There’s no shoulder here to stand on. I don’t have a shoulder! No shoulders.

Understood. In the meantime, I can hear you better now.

Now you can hear. I said that it’s a prize in the name of the university, though it’s given by a specific department. And because every prize carries a statement with it, this statement, I think, is not Besides which, it isn’t consistent with the aim of the prize Not as I understand it. But because there is a statement here, which it is not the place of the university to make

Why not? Isn’t academia the place where you are allowed to say everything and give voice to the broadest range of opinions?

Voicing [opinions] is permitted, but to award a prize goes far beyond voicing and speaking.

Awarding a prize is a statement. It’s as if to say to Breaking the Silence: “We appreciate your work.” Apparently you just don’t appreciate their work.

That is not what I said, and don’t put things I didn’t say in my mouth. You have a tendency to do that.

I didn’t say that that’s what you said. I said that it was implied by what you said. And what do you mean, I have a tendency to do that? We’ve never spoken before.

I read you very, very religiously.

Happy to hear it. Do you like what you read?

Generally yes. Not always, but generally yes.

Good, then you must know that I am the last person to put things in the mouth of others. On the contrary. My quotes are very accurate.

Fine. As to our subject, I repeat: to give a prize is a statement that is very To allow room for speech, for an opinion, even an infuriating, maddening opinion – the university is certainly the ultimate place. Everything has to be discussed. Everything has to be talked out. But to award a prize – that is something very, very significant. Now, to award a prize By the way, what is ‘in the name of the university’? Did anyone ask the faculty?

It’s a prize from the Middle East Studies Department, and those who decided are the department’s faculty members. That’s how it always was. And if I understand correctly, your intervention is unprecedented.

It is not a prize of the department.

Yes it is. Always has been.

It’s a prize that was given to the university, and the department received responsibility for it.

Well, then, the department is responsible, the department chose – and you disqualified.

It’s the department that chooses, and the truth is that I didn’t even know there was such a prize. For 20 years there was nothing sensational about the choice, nothing special, and therefore it never came up on the agenda.

Fine, professor, with all due respect, you simply intervened politically. Did you see the Haaretz editorial of June 28?

No.

It was titled “An Israeli university teaches a lesson in spinelessness,” and when the editorial board say “spinelessness,” they’re referring to you. I am not an editorial writer, but I agree with every word of that editorial. And if we’re speaking about the personal nature of the column, then my personal opinion is that it’s cowardice on your part. I think you should not have intervened. You took a political stand, and when you’re getting $400 million, nothing would have happened if Breaking the Silence had enjoyed the 20,000 shekels earmarked for them. It’s an organization that’s facing a campaign of incitement and is facing all the strongest political players in the country, who are assailing it. And you have joined those who are assailing it.

I am very impressed by your words. You speak them well and also passionately. You have every right to utter them. I stand by my action. I tried to explain that to you, but apparently you did not accept the explanation.

With all respect, professor, cognitively I didn’t even understand your explanation and why in your opinion the prize should not be awarded to them.

There is place for dialogue of all types. I am really the first – and I think there were a great many events in which I was involved, one of them a few weeks ago, an academic conference, and there was a very harsh dialogue there. The conference was about “breaking the silence” throughout Israel’s history, and there was a panel in which representatives of Breaking the Silence took part, and I insisted that the conference take place. There was severe criticism, including from one donor who announced that he would no longer donate [to the university].

Great. At last I got an answer. Thank you. You canceled the prize because donors are simply threatening you and determining the

Absolutely not. The university holds discussions on every topic. To award a prize is something else.

Nevertheless, I think I understood correctly. Maybe you will reconsider?

I have stated my opinion.

All right, ma’am. Thank you for the conversation.

Thank you.