An Israeli University Teaches a Lesson in Spinelessness

By retracting a prize to Breaking the Silence in the name of 'the consensus', Ben-Gurion University has made a dangerous capitulation to the forces that seek to suppress civil society.

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

In recent years the Israeli government has waged a methodical campaign to undermine any criticism of its policies, focused mainly against human rights and anti-occupation organizations. The mud-slinging against various individuals and organizations, which has judicial and public outgrowths, has become a given for large swaths of Israeli society.

The decision of the president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Prof. Rivka Carmi, to cancel an award to Breaking the Silence in the wake of a vicious incitement campaign against the organization encourages this unacceptable way of thinking. Instead of reinforcing civil society, Carmi joined with the forces that seek to suppress it while adopting the language of delegitimizing organizations that criticize government policy, in particular with regard to the occupation.

The Berelson Prize has been awarded by the university’s Middle East Studies Department for 25 years. The public recognition and modest monetary prize of 20,000 shekels (around $5,000) that it entails are awarded to individuals and nonprofit organizations that faculty members judge to have contributed to the advancement of understanding between Jews and Arabs. About a month ago the department chose to give the prize to Breaking the Silence. “We believe that advancing Jewish-Arab relations requires confronting the public with the truth of the occupation – which may not be pleasant to hear, but constitutes a fundamental condition for reconciliation between the two peoples,” explained department chairman Prof. Haggai Ram.

Carmi ignored the fact that the prize recipients have always been chosen by the department. They include the Egyptian playwright Ali Salem, the poet Siham Daoud and organizations such as Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, Sikkuy – the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality and the Galilee Arab-Jewish School. The department’s arguments for choosing Breaking the Silence were rejected out of hand.

According to Carmi, the organization is “not within the national consensus, and giving it the prize is liable to be interpreted as an appearance of political bias.” These reasons are pitiful. They lack even a suggestion of the argument that a university should be a safe and open space for different opinions, whose gates are closed to considerations of consensus and fear of political criticism. This is true especially when the consensus on whose behalf Carmi speaks endeavors not to advance understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, but rather to destroy it.

Carmi’s decision, and the justifications she gave for them, send a message of reprimand and deterrence to faculty members at BGU and other academic institutions who seek to continue to voice their criticism. The faculty must stand up to this dangerous capitulation that bends even academia to the will of the ruling government.