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Tel Aviv University
Adi Ophir


The Israeli Council for Higher Education Versus Ben Gurion University

 October 2, 2012

Adi Ophir, Cohn Institute for History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas and the Minerva Humanities Center at Tel Aviv University

The Subcommittee for Quality Assessment of the Israeli Council for Higher Education (CHE) has submitted a proposal to bar Ben Gurion University’s Department of Politics and Government from admitting students this year. This proposal follows a short report submitted by two international scholars, Professor Thomas Risse and Professor Ellen Immergut, about the university’s handling of another critical report prepared by an international committee CHE had appointed to audit departments of political science in Israeli universities. Appointed by the Israeli Minister of Education, CHE is a public body that is meant to preside over the management of Israeli universities and colleges, ensure their responsible budgetary management, and guarantee their academic autonomy. Recently, however, the Minister of Education, a radical right-wing figure, has appointed several right-leaning public representatives and academics as new CHE members and initiated several moves that were clearly political. The subcommittee’s proposal is a conclusive step toward closing the Department of Politics and Government, a department known in Israel for the political activism of some of its professors, some of whom are vocal and sharp critics of the Israeli regime.

The actions CHE has taken against the Department of Politics and Government are clearly politically motivated. The department has been an important target for Im Tirzu, a nationalist movement. Using McCarthyist methods, Im Tirzu persecutes non-Zionist academics systematically, encourages students to report “leftist” professors, and keeps track of syllabi in social science and humanities departments and evaluates them according to the movement’s own “Zionist” and “national” standards. Both the Minister of Education as well as a member of the auditing committee who has been particularly active in aggravating the report’s tone, Professor Avraham Diskin, are close to “Im Tirtzu” or at least, identify politically with the movement. Professor Moshe Maor, who serves as the chair of the CHE subcommittee, is a member of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, and identifies himself as a supporter of right-wing politics. Indeed, some of the reasoning that appeared in a public announcement made by CHE’s spokesperson, as well as in clarifying letters sent later, was whitewashed political arguments.

The context in which the attack against the department is waged, which made the threat to close it concrete, is quintessentially political too. The Israeli regime along with the right-wing circles linked to it are promoting initiatives in all areas and institutional branches, to push those who identify with the political left out of positions of power. This is the case in the justice system, in the state attorney’s office, in the professional ranks of the Ministry of Education, on public radio and television, and in newspapers. This is the case in CHE itself, where representatives from universities were reduced in number, while “public representatives” and representatives from colleges, many of whom, as mentioned earlier, are right-wing figures, have increased.

Equally significant as the political context, is the academic context in which CHE’s proposal was made. Ben Gurion University’s Department of Politics and Government was originally founded as an alternative to what was considered mainstream political science in Israel. A quantitative and positivist research orientation dominated and continues to dominate the other four Israeli political science departments. The precondition that Ben Gurion University’s department follow a distinctive approach and pursue distinctive research topics was in fact originally established by CHE itself, more than a decade ago, when the department was first created. CHE followed a correctly pluralist approach then. Pluralism, in this case, like in many other cases, is a matter of focus. The other political science departments are not pluralistic: they include only a small minority of researchers that adopt interpretive, historical, and critical approaches, and these researchers tend to be marginal in their departments. The Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University is not pluralistic because it does not give sufficient representation to quantitative and positivist research. But thanks to CHE’s decision, which was instrumental in establishing the department, political research in Israel became more pluralistic.

And indeed, the Department of Politics and Government gathered a group of outstanding scholars (the auditing committee report does not doubt this point), most of whom employ a variety of approaches that belong to the wide field of interpretive-historical research in social sciences. One of the most important characteristics of the interpretive approach, especially in its critical branches, is the fact that unlike most political science research, the state—the nation state in its current historical form—does not determine the coordinates within which research takes place, but is itself made an object of research. This is why the department is not called “the Department of Political Science,” but rather “the Department of Politics and Government.” The premise is that the state is a changing form of politics and government or governance, and these—not the state itself—are the elementary forms from which investigation should begin. Therefore, the problematization of the nation state is not necessarily an outcome of post-Zionist thinking, but of a critical historical approach to the state, its logic (raison d’être), and its apparatuses. One may very well adopt such an approach and be Zionist—indeed, there are such Zionist scholars in the Department of Politics and Government—but, in such cases, Zionist ideology would take on characteristics that would distinguish it from a right-wing Zionist ideology.

CHE appointed an auditing committee, in which none of the members could be counted as representing the critical historical approach to the study of state and politics. In no academic journal in this field, central or marginal, would the editors consider sending one of the committee members an article written by researchers in the department for review. No decent institution would ask them to review a file of a department scholar being evaluated for appointment, tenure, or promotion. Yet all of these people were convened to decide on the verdict of an entire academic department, whose research is in fact not in their field. The conclusive critical reasoning of the original report cited lack of scholarly pluralism in the department. They accused the department of insisting on studying a field that is its raison d’être. They accused the department of not balancing different academic approaches, as if balance in science is a matter similar to a T.V talk show.

Because of the political pressure and the palpable threat CHE posed, Ben Gurion University gave in, appointed new researchers that would satisfy the report’s demands, and made several changes in the curriculum. The last letter written by two international scholars, who had been appointed to keep track of the department’s implementation of the report, praises the University for successfully recruiting new researchers and calls on it to provide these researchers with resources and the time not only to conduct research, but also to develop a more diverse curriculum. This was the letter that the CHE subcommittee invoked to support its recommendation to stop enrollment in the department. That is, in the CHE subcommittee proposal, the allegation that the department lacks research diversity—fundamentally inaccurate in the first place, and which was addressed by the reforms Ben Gurion University adopted when it gave in to political pressure—remained the only guise for the political motivation behind the persecution of the department. In other words, the only rationale the subcommittee does rely on is flawed and contradicted by the content of the letter written by the very same international scholars that it cites.

In its blatant intervention in Ben Gurion University’s academic affairs, CHE does not only overstep the limits of its authority as defined by Israeli law, but it also violates the very principle of academic freedom. No academic department is obliged to give representation, let alone equal representation, to all scholarly approaches. Just as researchers should not be forced to adopt certain approaches, no one should impose a particular approach on departments. Departments should foster one or many academic approaches and prefer them to others based on their understanding of the state of knowledge. Departments should distinguish themselves from each other in their approaches to research and in the different emphases they put on history and theory, measurement, and comparison. CHE is not supposed to intervene in these matters. If there is an authority to correct an imbalance between different research approaches, that responsibility lies with the faculty and the university. Moreover, a perceived imbalance should be rectified by appointing new faculty members or opening new departments, not by closing existing departments filled with outstanding researchers. CHE’s decision has wide-reaching implications. It is not just a no-confidence vote in the Department of Politics and Government, but also a blatant intervention in the way Ben Gurion University navigates its academic affairs. Alas, the university has studied the auditing committee’s report, provided resources for new appointments in the department, decided in discussion with the department’s faculty what scholarly approaches should be added and from which specialties new researches should be recruited, followed the recruitment process closely, using international experts, and even required the department to adopt several changes in its curricula—and the university backs the department completely.

This is where we should consider the political conditions again.

We have good reason to believe that the decision to start the review process at CHE was driven from the beginning, to a large extent, by the desire to get rid of those “post-Zionists,” revisionist historians and critical sociologists that have been deconstructing mainstream Zionist meta-narrative and ideology since the early nineties. The simplistic reasoning behind this move goes something like this: critical theory = postmodernism + Marxism = post-Zionism. Who was selected to the auditing committees was certainly shaped by the effort to delegitimize anything that smells of critical theory. Last week CHE released another report, the general report of the evaluating committee for sociology and anthropology departments (in Israel the two are combined). Once again, their main target was critical theory; and indeed, this report should be studied in critical theory classes. The committee declares that “critical studies are controversial as areas within sociology” and should therefore “remain modest in size in any one department.” In a recent letter, Professor Maor, chair of the committee that recommended the sanction againt the Department of Politics and Government at BGU, uses precisely the same language to explain his recommendation. He could have quoted the report on the departments of sociology and anthropology in full, for this report goes on to explain that “critical studies are not part of the disciplinary core of the profession (i.e. sociology), contribute little to the prestige of a department in international arenas, and its representation in a sociology program should therefore be modest. This is best accomplished by limiting the number of sociology faculty in a department who are disposed to this theoretical approach and research style.” To this recommendation the committee then adds an interesting reservation: it should not apply to anthropologists. Why? Because critical theory “appears to be common in elite anthropology departments in the US and Western Europe… [and] the anthropological profession appears to have absorbed this conceptual orientation.”

Ever since the audit committee was created, the Department of Politics and Government has made little use of arguments about the legitimacy of its critical approaches, the scientific nature of political science, or the bias of the committee in this respect. The university administration, which has supported the department (more so today than in the past), was very reluctant to use this kind of argument because it mostly shares the spirit of positivism, along with the neoliberal ethos of quantification and of measurements of efficiency and excellence. Today, even though the threat to academic freedom is so blatant, the administration chooses to address CHE’s misconduct and the discrepancy between the “professional” report and the way CHE uses it.

One should keep in mind that Ben Gurion University is a peripheral academic institution; it depends on CHE much more than more established institutions like the Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University. It is the victim of a serious flaw in CHE’s conduct, a flaw that has led to the right-wing’s takeover of this body and the legitimacy that many of its members gave to the systematic persecution of leftist figures in Israeli academia in a political context where such persecutions are the norm. If the decision is made to bar Ben Gurion University from registering students in the Department of Politics and Government, it will create an opening for politicians and academics loyal to them, to dictate academic curricula in Israeli universities. This is nothing new, historically. But it may happen in Israel too.

That is why this is a critical moment for the future of Israeli higher education. Faculty in all universities must gather together to stop the closure of the Department of Politics and Government. We should demand from the heads of our universities not to leave Ben Gurion University alone in this battle against the subcommittee’s foolish proposal. We should make it clear that a Council for Higher Education that adopts this proposal will lose its academic legitimacy both in Israel and the rest of the world, and in a way that will have serious consequences for Israeli academia. We should make it clear that this is a violation of the accepted relationship between the regime and academia. We should make it clear that this violation necessitates a response, which can range from stopping all cooperation with CHE to calling a strike in the entire higher education system.

To support the Department of Politics and Government, visit the international petition here.

Read more about the entire affair (and look at relevant documents), in English, here.

Read CHE’s letter of clarification published in Haaretz on September 30, 2012, here.



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