Israeli University President: After They’ve Criticized Me, Here Are the Facts

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A conference on Breaking the Silence in Ben-Gurion University, last month.
A conference on Breaking the Silence in Ben-Gurion University.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

For several weeks now, various Haaretz commentators have fallen in line to put forth a thesis that is devoid of any factual basis. Their claim is that my decision to prevent the granting of the Berelson Prize to the Breaking the Silence organization constitutes capitulation to the consensus and undermines the values of freedom of expression and academic freedom.

But the paper’s readers should be given the plain facts, so that they can judge for themselves.

The university’s core functions as an academic institution – research and teaching – have no connection to the “consensus.” On the contrary, the essence of a research institution consists of challenging existing concepts and critically examining every scientific or social proposition. That is how universities have always acted. And for this reason, the university rigorously sanctifies free, open and critical discourse on a variety of subjects, even the most controversial.

One example out of many was the conference on “Whistleblowing through the Ages,” which took place at Ben-Gurion University a few weeks ago. The conference discussed the phenomenon of “breaking the silence” throughout history, and representatives of Breaking the Silence spoke at it, despite dogged protests and aggressive pressure against the university and against me personally. All the protesters received an explanation of the difference between academe’s function of providing a venue for discussion of every issue, however controversial, and the adoption of a particular political stance.

There were some who found these explanations unconvincing, including one donor who announced that he would refuse to continue donating, and whom I mentioned in my conversation with Haaretz’s Nir Gontarz. Gontarz then seized on only part of my sentence to reach the ridiculous conclusion that “donors are simply threatening you and determining ...” Yet the facts are that not only did this donor have no impact on whether the conference took place, but (and I suspect one wouldn’t see such a step in many Israeli institutions) his last contribution was returned to him.

And here’s another fact: The Berelson endowment was given to the university, not to a specific department, and its original purpose was to award a prize to students or researchers who advanced peace and relations between Jews and Arabs. The granting of the prize by the university constitutes a gesture of recognition and esteem, which entails taking a stand and declaring support for the recipient. Such a declaration of support for Breaking the Silence is not within the mandate of the university, which is comprised of individuals with different opinions, and all the more so not in the mandate of one specific department, which has no authority to speak in the name of the entire institution.

In deciding to grant an honorary doctorate to Sayed Kashua, an Arab creative artist whose identity is molded by his writing, the university sought to express its admiration and esteem for his activity as an artist and a writer. How hurtful and cynical it was for one Haaretz writer to claim instead that the university was using Kashua as a pet Arab in order to present itself as a pluralistic institution. By so doing, she effectively erased all his talents and achievements and reduced his character to the dimensions of a “kashrut certificate.”

And this is the place to mention the essence of the Berelson Prize, which has been forgotten amid all the inflammatory and distracting talk: The university I head works to improve relations between Jews and Arabs in the Negev, nurtures and empowers the population of the Negev, and is creating a de facto educational, social, economic and technological revolution that is changing the lives of tens of thousands of people – Arabs and Jews alike.

Prof. Carmi is president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

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