The intensity of the impending electoral season threatens to obscure one of the most serious issues on Israel’s agenda — one which may shake the foundations of its creative capacities and of its democratic viability. Two weeks from now, on October 31, the Council for Higher Education (CHE, or, by its Hebrew acronym, MALAG) is scheduled to vote on a recommendation of its Sub-Committee on Quality Control to stop registration of new students in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University for the next academic year (2013-2014).

Never in Israel’s entire history has an academic department been closed by such a dictate, never has its academic freedom been so gravely assailed (and this by precisely that body charged with its protection), and never have events in the seemingly esoteric world of academe carried such wide-ranging implications for Israel’s fundamental character. It behooves everyone who cares about Israel’s greatest asset — its brainpower — to make sure that this does not happen.

Periodic independent assessments of academic departments — including the quality of faculty, curricula, programs, instruction and, of course, research — are one of the key tools for ensuring that Israeli institutions of higher education maintain the highest international standards and continue to stand at the forefront of academic innovation. Each year, several fields are selected for rigorous review in all the universities and colleges throughout the country. In 2008-2009, the choice fell on political science. From the outset, the process in this instance departed from the norm: it was inexplicably prolonged, heavily politicized and, ultimately, unusually controversial.

Students at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

Students at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

As the various departments and faculties of political science were completing their detailed reports in order to meet the deadline for submission in late 2009, they were informed of the composition of the committee of evaluation, consisting of respected international and Israeli scholars covering the various sub-fields of the discipline. The make-up of the committee was queried on political grounds and, in early 2010, the CHE decided, in an unprecedented move, to temporarily halt the evaluation process and to disband the original committee. A full year later, at the beginning of January, 2011, a new committee, headed by Professor Thomas Risse of the Free University of Berlin, was constituted and a schedule designed for on-site visits.

Thus, it was only in September 2011 that the drafts of the evaluation committee were first circulated. These immediately created headlines. Despite specific critiques — some quite severe — of various aspects of the performance of all the departments under review (the full reports are posted on the Council’s website), in a contested decision the committee added, in the case of the Politics and Government Department at Ben-Gurion University (BGU), that failure to comply with its recommendations would result in possible closure.

A public furor ensued. The decision was viewed by many as the most egregious step in what has developed into a pattern of government interference in higher education (from the creation of a special council to approve the upgrading of the Academic College of Ariel to university status and collaboration with Knesset debates on the content of social science courses, to the recent change in the composition of the CHE).

The BGU department, from the outset designed as an inter-disciplinary unit for the study of various aspects of politics whose faculty boasts an impressive list of publications in leading journals and academic presses, had already drawn a great deal of fire because some of its faculty members have not only been outspoken in their criticism of Israeli government policies, but also especially militant in their public activism.

Indeed, just a few months before the publication of the initial reports, it had been the object of a well-planned assault by Im Tirtzu, a self-anointed right-wing monitor group, which suggested to key BGU donors to freeze their contributions if the university administration failed to take steps against what it considered to be unacceptable behavior. The evaluation committee’s report provided additional fodder for their campaign.

In academic circles the threat to the Department of Politics and Government has been, with very few exceptions, cast in much broader terms as an attack on academic freedom in Israel in general. The recommendations of the committee to alter the core curricula and to expand the teaching staff to reflect a plurality of approaches and methodologies was (and still is) heavily debated on the exceptionally active social science network; the possibility of academic closure because of such disagreements has been almost unanimously condemned.

A year ago, the CHE approved the recommendations of the external evaluation committee and appointed a team of two, Professor Risse and Professor Ellen Immergut, to monitor their implementation. In August, they reported that they were impressed with the new recruits and the substantive changes in the curriculum at BGU and looked forward to their completion. This report, for reasons that have yet to be clarified (and to the subsequent written dismay of Professor Risse), was translated by the CHE’s own Sub-Committee on Quality Control into a proposed resolution to effectively close the department next year.

For the past month, the debate launched over a year ago has been reignited, expanding well beyond Israel’s borders. Every single major professional organization in the field (the Israeli Political Science Association, the American Political Science Association, the American Sociological Association, the European Consortium for Political Research, the French Political Science Association, to name just a few), and leading scholars in the field, has spoken out against this move. It is much too easy to dismiss these protests as merely political. Although they involve political science and inevitably reflect political preferences, they deal with far more fundamental issues affecting Israeli society and Israel.

Israeli Arab students at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba (phot credit: Serge Attal/Flash90)

Israeli Arab students at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba (phot credit: Serge Attal/Flash90)

At stake, first, is one of Israel’s most precious treasures: its academic excellence. The production of knowledge and intellectual creativity depend on the nurturing of a climate of openness and the safeguarding of freedom of thought (yes, even when certain views are seen as anathema by many). Once this protective shield is penetrated in one area, the guarantee of academic freedom — so essential for any country’s progress — is compromised. The early signs of undue caution among young Israeli academics fearful of losing their positions or not being promoted are already evident; the adoption of the proposed resolution may further constrain intellectual growth. And without minds free to pursue the unknown and the unconventional, the quality of academic institutions in the country cannot but decline.

Stripped of its academic capacities, Israel’s economic and social progress will be stunted.

Israel’s image, too, will suffer immeasurable damage. In a period in which so much effort has been expended to prevent an academic boycott of the country, the imposition of an uncalled-for sanction on Ben-Gurion University by Israel’s own Council of Higher Education can only further tarnish the country and undermine efforts to maintain the kind of open discussion so vital for its advancement.

Above all, however, as Nobel laureate Aaron Ciechanover so astutely wrote to the President of Ben-Gurion University, Professor Rivka Carmi: “The battle is not between right and left, Zionist and post-Zionist…it is on the very spirit of this country. Are we going to become a religious, ultra-conservative, nationalist and isolated country, or a liberal, secular, democratic country in light of the dream of its founders?” The answer to this question doesn’t have to do only with Israeli academe; it has to do with the State of Israel and its values.

These are turbulent times. They will become even more tumultuous if a decision is rendered that will cut off one of the most essential branches upon which Israel was established: its culture of curiosity, skepticism and debate, which has fostered its capacity for discovery. Tampering with the autonomy of its institutions of higher education is nothing short of a prescription for disaster.