Attacks on academic freedom and freedom of expression in schools and universities

Academic activity – learning, teaching, writing, and research – is based on academic freedom: the freedom to think, to teach, and to express different ideas, even when these are highly unpopular. There can be no academia without these freedoms; no free thought; no science of philosophy; and no Nobel prizes. The essence of academic research, and the key to scientific progress, is the ability to cast doubts and to challenge basic assumptions. This is one reason why innovative scientific ideas sometimes arouse opposition and criticism, but it also explains why it is so important to allow these ideas to be expressed.

Academic activity – learning, teaching, writing, and research – is based on academic freedom: the freedom to think, to teach, and to express different ideas, even when these are highly unpopular. There can be no academia without these freedoms; no free thought; no science of philosophy; and no Nobel prizes. The essence of academic research, and the key to scientific progress, is the ability to cast doubts and to challenge basic assumptions. This is one reason why innovative scientific ideas sometimes arouse opposition and criticism, but it also explains why it is so important to allow these ideas to be expressed.

Academics have always expressed views that many people find unpleasant, to put it mildly. Over the past year, however, the academic freedom of lecturers and educators has been subject to a concerted attack by public officials and political organizations.

In August 2009, Dr. Niv Gordon, head of the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University, published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times. In the article, Dr. Gordon urged the international community to impose a boycott on Israel in order to pressurize it to end the occupation. Other academics agree with this position. In protest at the article, the Israeli consul general in Los Angeles wrote a fiercely-worded letter to the president of Ben Gurion University. The university joined the voices of condemnation, arguing that Dr. Gordon had overstepped the boundaries of academic freedom.

Since then, it seems that a floodgate has opened allowing attacks on the freedom of expression of educators in general, and academics in particular. Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon recently attacked academics who expressed views that diverge from his own, accusing them of joining a campaign against the State of Israel. The education minister himself joined the attack, announcing that he would take action against lecturers who advocate an academic boycott of Israel. In response, 542 lecturers signed a petition in June warning the education minister not to attack their academic freedom or that of their colleagues. “In order for the higher education system in Israel to be high-quality and decent,” the petition explained, “it should include the expression of opinions that not everyone finds pleasant; it should present social and political criticism; and it should maintain critical and even controversial research and teaching.” The education minister does not seem to have been convinced by these arguments.

An article published in December 2009 in the newspaper Ha’ir1 described the activities of an organization called Israel Academia Monitor, which presents a monthly report to the board of governors of the various universities detailing the activities of “academics who want to destroy the State of Israel.” The organization’s website explains that this epithet refers to “academics who call for a boycott of Israel at international conferences, or academics who collaborate with pro-Arab organizations such as Adalah and B’Tselem.” Academics interviewed for the article described an atmosphere of silencing and persecution.

At the end of 2009, the State Prosecutor’s Office asked Dr. David Bukai to retract statements he allegedly made against Arabs, and to sign a statement undertaking not to make such comments in the future. However, Dr. Bukai denies making such comments, and it has never been proved that he did so. In another incident, Ben Gurion University recently took swift action to remove a lecturer who expressed opinions against homosexuals. Although his comments were offensive, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel supported the lecturer, arguing that academic freedom includes the freedom to make outrageous comments, particularly when these are confined to the expression of an opinion. The teaching committee may require the lecturer to clarify that this is his personal view, and it should certainly ensure that the lecturer does not mislead the students regarding current research and ethical approaches. However, there are no grounds for dismissing the lecturer.

The attack on academic freedom has also reached the Knesset Education Committee. Following a report prepared by the Im Tirtzu movement, the committee held a discussion on the subject of “the displacement of Zionist opinions in academia.” The members of the organization enjoyed ample time to present their position at the discussion, while participants who sought to present different views were given almost no opportunity to do so. The participants did not have an opportunity to read the report before the meeting of the committee. During the discussion, the speakers attacked the content of studies in institutions of higher education, and suggested that the inspection of lecturers should be intensified. Following the discussion and the report, the education minister announced that he would investigate the movement’s claims about lecturers’ opinions and the content of studies. The Institute for Zionist Strategy (which attacked civic studies in schools, as described above) intends to publish a report claiming that there is a “post-Zionist bias” in the sociology departments in Israeli universities. As in the case of the report by Im Tirtzu, the content of university studies were not examined in accordance with academic criteria,2 such as the quality, innovation, or originality of research, but rather on the basis of political criteria. In other words, an organization with a clear political agenda is seeking restrict the academic freedom of researchers whose positions are inconsistent with those it seeks to promote.

The attack on academic freedom reached a new peak with the threat by the Im Tirtzu movement to the president of Ben Gurion University. Im Tirtzu stated that it would work to halt donations to the university unless the university corrects the “anti-Zionist bias” in the composition of the faculty and the content of the syllabuses in the university’s Department of Politics and Government. The president of the university was not intimidated by the attack, and the heads of the institutions of higher education were quick to support her position. The gross attempt by Im Tirtzu to impose its political agenda on academic content is particularly alarming given the possible contacts between this movement and the establishment. For example, the Calcalist website revealed that Im Tirtzu receives most of its funding through the Jewish Agency for Israel. The president of Tel Aviv University commented in Ha’aretz on “the open door Im Tirtzu activists enjoy to the political echelon in Israel.”

The freedom of expression of students has also been impaired. In one case, the management of Haifa University, with the support of the student union, prohibited a group of students from holding a demonstration to mark the first anniversary of Operation Cast Lead. In a similar case, Haifa University prohibited a demonstration against the events surrounding the flotilla from Turkey to the Gaza Strip. In a third instance, the NRG-Maariv website alleged that Tel Aviv University prevented a reporter from a regional radio station in Judea and Samaria from covering a conference on the subject of the Nakba.

At a recent meeting with human rights organizations, including ACRI, Arab students at Haifa University raised complaints regarding the university’s policy toward their political and social activities. The students claim that, in most cases, they cannot receive authorization for their activities (such as demonstrations, lecturers, setting up a stall, or distributing leaflets). When authorizations are given, they are often withdrawn at the last moment, sometimes without any explanation and sometimes on spurious grounds. The students also claim that demonstrations are occasionally dispersed by force and the student organizers are summonsed to a disciplinary committee. In response to letters sent to Haifa University by Adalah in recent months concerning the students’ freedom of expression, the university claims that public activities are secondary to its primary goals, which are teaching and research. The university argues that it permits extensive public activities on the campus, subject to its laws and procedures.

Last June, the Knesset Education Committee discussed the subject of the freedom of expression of school teachers. The speakers at the meeting, on the subject of the boundaries of freedom of expression of educators, included the principal of Herzliya Gymnasium, Dr. Zeev Dagani, who criticized visits to schools by army officers as part of the program to encourage recruitment to combat units. Another guest was Ram Cohen, principal of Ironi Aleph School in Tel Aviv, who discussed the subject of the occupation with his students; Cohen was criticized by senior Ministry of Education officials and summonsed to a clarifying meeting. Freedom of expression in educational institutions is a serious issue and worthy of discussion. However, the fact that these two principals alone were “invited” to the meeting suggests that an effort was being made to delegitimize specific political and social views. By way of example, the Knesset Education Committee does not seem to have any problem with events marking “Gush Katif Day” in schools, which reflect clear political opinions with the approval of the ministry.

The cases described above create grave concern that views are being silenced and the academic freedom of teachers and lecturers is coming under attack. This freedom is a vital condition for higher education in a democracy. According to reports in Ha’aretz, even the Ministry of Education itself recently noted that “there is no willingness today to listen to opinions that deviate from the official line,” and that “some officials are afraid to express their opinion and fall into line with the instructions of senior ministry officials, in order to survive.”

In March, Sa’ar was the keynote speaker at the conference of Im Tirtzu, a movement that uses aggressive and antidemocratic means in order to delegitimize any position that diverges from its own particular Zionist narrative. “I am a strong admirer of your activities,” the minister told the participants at the conference. “I think that together with other groups who are working with young age groups, this gives grounds for much hope (…) it is certainly particularly vital on our campuses.”

As a politician, Sa’ar certainly has both the right and the obligation to express his opinions. However, there is something distasteful, at the very least, about his sweeping support for a body such as Im Tirtzu, which recently declared war against human rights organizations and is systematically seeking to delegitimize them. Such a position is completely contrary to the values of pluralism, diverse views, and freedom of expression.

  1. Shai Greenberg and Neta Achituv, Hated, Ha’ir, 11 December 2009. []
  2. For example, see the article by Guy Grossman and Rami Kaplan on the Ha’aretz website regarding the Im Tirtzu report. []