Is Israel’s CHE about to suppress free speech at Ben-Gurion University?

Ben-Gurion University

The Israeli Council of Higher Education (CHE) has demanded (pending final approval by the Israeli parliament) that Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Politics and Government stop accepting students effective September 2013/14.  Meaning, that without students, the department would have to be shut down.Why? Because some professors in that department are allegedly anti-settlement.  For full details, read these two sources —Haaretz and the NationalAE.

Look, I am pro-Israel. Always have been. But, I am also anti-settlement. Plus, I am most assuredly anti-censureship at the university level unless an academic gets into hate speech and this definitely does not appear to be the case.

The crux of the matter is that if Israeli politicians continue on this current path, they will lose an awful lot of international supporters.  Why? Because, one of the characteristics of a democracy sliding ever so slowly into dictatorship, is the suppression of debate and disagreement.

Interestingly, in Canada, we actually have a comparable situation. York University regularly has what some claim are anti-Israeli conferences. For example, there was the 2009 conference called “Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace.” As in Israel, some say that type of conference is based on prejudicial assumptions about Israel and should not be allowed to happen.

Yet, I did a quick check on who the speakers were and clicked on just one — Dr. Bashir Bashir — and his bio clearly indicates he is hardly anti-Israeli. Rather, he is interested in reconciliation.

So, imagine the hue and cry (and rightly so) if PM Stephen Harper and the Conservative Cabinet appointed a committee that demanded York University stop admitting students to their politics department next September — thereby shutting down the department because some pro-Jewish groups in Canada didn’t like anyone criticizing Israel.

In any event, regardless of what is going on in Canada, it is what is going on in Israel that is the point of this post and, as a former and retired academic (Education) (and as regulars to CotM know, hardly a left winger), I can only hope that the Israeli Cabinet does not follow through on the CHE’s decision to shut down Ben-Gurion’s politics department.

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Update Sunday, October 7, 2012. I have received a number of private e-mails on this post via my Contact Form.  Some were related to the decision to close the Ben-Gurion Department of Politics and Government as being anti-free speech — a view I took. Others were about the fact that the whole issue is about academic competence, an aspect of the controversy covered by this article, particularly the part about faculty not having enough refereed publications. Having experienced department evaluations, I know how important it is to publish in peer-reviewed journals. To put it bluntly, no matter where you are working in academia, it really is “publish or perish!”

As well, I have also been carrying on an interesting conversation with someone at Jack’s Newswatch where I cross-posted this article. It sounds like he is fully aware of the situation from an Israeli point of view and holds the “not academically competent” view as opposed to free speech.  As visitors will notice, I do my best to refute his argument. 

Nevertheless, no matter what opinions people hold on this topic, like everything related to Israel, the situation is obviously extremely complicated. As a result, I will not publish an update unless I can find sources that reflect all sides to the story — unfortunately not an easy task given the fact that I can’t read Hebrew.  However, if anyone has a link to an English source that is neither radical left or radical right, please send it to me via my Contact Form.   

H/T CC re the CHE decision at the core of this post.

C/P Jack’s Newswatch October 3rd, 2012.

Welcome to newswatchcanada.ca readers, Tuesday, October 9th, 2012.

Academic freedom is really about political beliefs

University politics is like politics everywhere. It can be very divisive and it can be vicious — which is why I have said in the past that Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s background actually prepared him well for Ottawa. Mind you, whether he has been able to generalize what he learned is another question altogether.

In any event, there is a current battle brewing at York University and what happens there, I suspect, will affect all Canadian universities. It’s about what is or isn’t academic freedom. Regarding the York situation, of course you have people on opposing sides making allegations and claims. And, just like federal, provincial or municipal politics, people take sides.

In my opinion, it will only get worse with the release of the report by Justice Frank Iacobucci last Friday (yes, the same judge recently asked by PM Harper to examine the detainee documents issue) and why the issue of academic freedom is back in the media (h/t Jack’s Newswatch).

What is this all about? Well, last year, a group of professors at York University put on a conference with the politically correct title — Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to PeaceHowever, complaints at that time, by York officials and others, were that the title aside, the conference was simply going to be an opportunity to criticize Israel.

Of course, the organizers cried foul and York’s President then had to call in the retired judge to look at the issue of academic freedom in the context of the conference.

Well, it seems that Justice Iacobucci agrees that academic freedom does not mean you can say or write whatever you want — that there needs to be some kind of consensus. In his report, for example, he suggests that the York University community have a meaningful discussion about the “core values” of academic freedom and the best practices that would follow from those values. 

I certainly will make no claim here to have any answers. Far from it. But, I do offer readers a challenge. Take a look at the roster of speakers at the York conference in question and then scroll down the page and read some of the titles of the various presentations. 

Was that conference about providing paths to peace in the Middle East through an open debate or was it simply an opportunity to bash the only democratic country in that neighbourhood — Israel?

Remember, when you are looking at the titles and even the content of some of the papers, keep in mind, not only academic freedom, but the concepts of a free society and free speech. Meaning, that when considering my challenge, it wouldn’t hurt if you also had the wisdom of Solomon.