David Newman on the Assault on Politics & Government at Ben Gurion University

Below is an email that David Newman circulated to explain the situation facing the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University. My current colleague Dr Joel Peters served in this department before being hired by Government and International Affairs at Virginia Tech in the National Capital Region.

Dear Colleagues
 There is an urgent matter that I want to bring to your attention. This is in regard to an apparently politically motivated assault that is currently underway by the Israeli government’s Council for Higher Education against the department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University  which is now under threat of being shut down.
Let me note first that though the assault is on a political science department, my colleagues, including myself, strongly believe that this is a matter of the wider social science community and furthermore, we, as sociologists, should speak out in protection of academic freedom. It is also clear to us that the attack on the Department is part of what have been a series of political attacks on the Departments for its so-called “left wing” academics which has been going on for some years with the support of the right wing Minister of Education, Gidon Saar, who is also formally the Chairperson of the Council for Higher Education – although traditionally the Minister has never before intervened in the CHE’s decisions in the way that he is doing in this particular case.
Among the department’s faculty are some prominent, tenured, and politically critical scholars, many of whom have been under pressure by members of the current Israeli government, as well as some prominent Jewish nationalist figures. Tensions over the role of academics in Israel’s political debates have been on the rise, and some Israeli government officials seem determined to discipline the academic community by punishing Ben Gurion University. All these should be understood in the wider context of increasing attacks on democratic forces in the Israeli society, including the Supreme Court, human rights NGOs and their donors and academia.
These are the details and the chain of events that led to the present stage in which on September 5th 2012, a sub-committee of the Israeli Council for Higher Education proposed suspending student registration in the department for academic year 2013-14, effectively closing the department down. In 2010, the Israeli government’s Council of Higher Education established an international evaluation committee to scrutinize political science departments in Israel.
From the outset, the process appears to have been inappropriately politicized. Prof. Ian Lustick, a prominent American political scientist from the University of Pennsylvania, and an internationally recognized expert on Israeli society and politics, was removed from the evaluation committee for unknown reasons. Then, the original committee chair, Prof. Robert Shapiro of Columbia University, resigned, and Hebrew University’s Department of Political Science decided not to cooperate with the evaluation. The international evaluation committee was subsequently recomposed under the direction of Prof. Thomas Risse of Berlin’s Freie University.
The new committee’s evaluation of the BGU Department of Politics and Government was highly critical, arguing that its performance was marred by the “excessive social activism of its members.” The committee recommended that the department recruit more mainstream political science faculty and engage in some curricular changes. Failing that, the committee said, the Council of Higher Education should consider shutting the department down.  Members of the Ben Gurion University department rejected the evaluation, writing a report that showed that it was methodologically flawed, and factually incorrect.
At the end of 2011, the Israeli Council of Higher Education appointed Prof. Risse and Prof. Ellen M. Immergut to oversee BGU’s implementation of international evaluation committee’s recommendations.
In November 2011, BGU’s administrative leadership directed the Politics and Government Department to comply with the committee’s recommendations by hiring three new faculty members in comparative politics, quantitative methods and political theory, and by introducing a number of curricular changes.
On July 2012, Profs. Risse and Immergut wrote the Israeli Council of Higher Education to “congratulate the department on successfully recruiting three new faculty members in the areas of comparative politics, quantitative methods, and political theory, and for its plans for a fourth recruitment next year.” They also called upon BGU to allow these young scholars “the time, resources, and mentoring to publish in top ranked international refereed journals and university presses,” so that the department could “fulfill its deficits in mainstream political science.”  Finally, Prof. Risse and Immergut noted that “the department should increase its diversity in terms of methods and theoretical orientations in future recruitments.” Neither scholar called for sanctions; instead, their recommendations and tone suggested that they were satisfied with BGU’s efforts.
On September 5, 2012, however, a sub-committee of the Israeli Council of Higher Education proposed shutting down the department because it had failed to comply with the international evaluation committee’s recommendations. The full Council will consider that recommendation in October 2012, and appears poised to suspend student registration in the department, effectively shutting it down.
The gap between Risse’s and Immergut’s letter, on the one hand, and the Council’s sub-committee, on the other, suggests that the evaluation process is a politically motivated assault on BGU and its Department of Politics and Government. Unfortunately, Prof. Risse and Prof. Immegut have not spoken out on the matter, even though they were made aware of this decision by BGU’s president.
BGU President Rivka Carmi has been energetically supportive of the Politics and Government Department, and the University has retained external legal council. President Carmi has been at the forefront of a struggle by Israeli university presidents to prevent the Israeli government from opening a new University in the Jewish town of Ariel, located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Some at BGU are interpreting the Council of Higher Education’s moves as reprisal against BGU for defying the government on this important matter.
I urge you and your colleagues to discuss this matter further, and to consider convening an urgent investigation into this apparent threat to academic freedom in Israel. It also needs to be brought to the attention of the various academic associations with which you are affiliated.  The Council of Higher Education’s final decision on the matter is fast approaching; it is imperative that the ASA and other prominent academic associations engage with this unfortunate affair as soon as possible.
I would like to draw your attention to the fact that never in the history of Israeli academia a department was shut down by the Council for Higher Education, and that the attack on the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University endangers not only this one particular department but the status of the Israeli academia as a whole. The immoral and illegal procedures enacted by the evaluation committee breaches academic freedom in Israel and is of a great concern to all of us who are worried for our future ability to conduct free and unconditional work.    
Prof. Dani Filc, (dfilc@bgu.ac.il) the chair of the Department of Politics and Government can provide documentation and additional information.
Sincerely yours,
Professor David Newman
Dean, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
Ben Gurion University

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About Gerard Toal

I am an Irish born DC based Political Geographer researching Euro-Atlantic/Eurasia geopolitics and post-Soviet de facto states.
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2 Responses to David Newman on the Assault on Politics & Government at Ben Gurion University

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