By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

Sound and fury in the academy


The slippery subject of academic freedom has moved into our headlines with a draft code of ethics for universities and their personnel. It is the work of Professor Asa Kasher, a philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University, and the author of the IDF’s code of ethics.

He prepared this code at the request of the right of center Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, known for his support of settlers, increasing the importance of Judaism in the lessons of primary and secondary schools, and a frequent criticism of Jews and others who condemn Israel and support boycotts.

Israeli universities are no strangers to political controversy. Lecturers and students have long contributed to sharp criticism of governmental action or inaction, with some signing on to international campaigns to boycott Israeli universities and other institutions.

The tilt of academics is clearly to the left, as it is on quality campuses throughout the US, Western Europe, and several other countries that permit academic freedom. Leftism is generally strongest, but not uniform, in faculties of literature, art, music, and other humanities. Economics, business administration, law, engineering and the hard sciences are the faculties where one is likely to find rightists, but there, too, without any unanimity.

Universities being what they are, they provide a home for a wide variety of perspectives. One cannot claim them to be free of political bias in what they teach or who they hire and promote, but the better ones are run by committees sufficiently open to criticism so that extremists are likely to be made known if not excluded.

The universities of the Jewish country may be noisier than others, given the culture’s historic acceptance of dispute. 

Among the delegations that have come to Israeli schools and colleges in search of the secret of Jewish creativity have been officials from China and South Korea.

One of South Korea’s television networks broadcast a series of programs that focused on the lack of East Asian discipline in Israeli middle schools. Students are noisy. They ask questions, and even express reservations about what their teachers say.

The political party that Bennett heads, Jewish Home, is arguably the most assertive right of center party in the government coalition. He has called for a more aggressive posture toward Gaza as well as more thorough going policy of settling the West Bank and formally annexing substantial portions of it to Israel. As Minister of Education he has made a point of criticizing what he sees as a strong leftist bias in the country’s universities, claiming that faculty members quash the academic freedom of students who object to the prevailing line in their courses.

A fair reading of Professor Kasher’s draft code of ethics sees an effort to balance the individual freedom of academics against the actions of those who would use their positions to promote personal political views, especially under the banner of speaking as experts or promoting ideas backed up with the cultural power of their institutions.

His document has been widely, if not universally criticized by the country’s academics and university presidents. The country’s student organization also opposes, and threatens a strike if authorities adopt it. A popular lecturer says that, if adopted, he’ll violate its provisions in all of his classes.

The heads of faculty associations at the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Ben Gurion University, Haifa University, the Technion and the Weizmann Institute (but not, notably, the right- religious- and pro-settler-leaning Bar Ilan or Ariel University) issued a statement of opposition that included 

“At issue is a recommended code of ethics, that is against what is established practice, was drafted without the participation of senior faculty associations or their members, but would be imposed by the regulator and its representatives... defines forbidden political activity in the widest fashion... we reject totally the recommended ethics code... that stands in opposition to established legal protections for freedom of expression, freedom of thought and criticism... is a danger to academic freedom of distinguished professionals.”

The cartoonist of Ha’aretz portrayed Kasher, Bennett, and a proposal that the duo might embark on a code of ethics for taxi drivers, currently embroiled in a dispute about fares from the airport.

The draft will have to pass muster with the Council for Higher Education. The Minister of Education is chair of the Council, but its membership is largely that of university presidents. Given their reception to Kasher’s draft, there doesn’t seem to be a snowball’s chance in hell that it’ll be accepted as is.

The weakest part of Kasher’s document is a paragraph within a section where he tries to define political activities:

“All activities that directly support a controversial posture currently being considered in the Knesset or public discussion, with a clear connection to the posture advocated by one or more political parties, in the Knesset or outside of it, or an expressed opposition to such a posture.”

Kasher would forbid such expression as part of classroom teaching, or in a public pronouncement where an academic does not explicitly distinguish his or her support or opposition from the posture of the university.

The slipperiest aspect of Kasher’s proposal would come in departments of political science, public policy, public administration, and the full range of social sciences or wherever else issues of public policy are appropriately discussed. Criticism of government policy and the statements of politicians are part of the educational process, with teachers having not only a right but perhaps a professional obligation to indicate who benefits and loses by any policy enactment or proposal, as well as the faults inherent in a policy’s implementation to date.

Outside of the narrow range of courses that deal explicitly with government policy are the range of courses that touch on policy indirectly. Could a teacher report about violence, criminality, or poor health practices in an ethnic community,  without being charged with bias against that group?

A common view expressed by university personnel is that institutions of higher education are better qualified than anything associated with government to deal with academic extremists who use their positions improperly. Against them, critics note that universities have dealt with faculty members who harass students sexually, but not politically.

Current arrangements are not perfect. But universities are not supposed to be smooth running institutions where all agree with one another. Where harmony does prevail, such institutions would have trouble calling themselves universities.

On the edge of credibility are institutions in the US and elsewhere that have adopted, and may actually implement codes of behavior that threaten freedom of expression in the name of protecting students and staff from humiliation, disrespect, or other modes of embarrassment. 

Nastiness in the classroom and among student organizations may not be pleasant. The issue may be especially problematic where it coexists with tolerance of those who would boycott Israel and spill over to anti-Semitism against Jewish students and teachers.

Some claim that disrespect is forbidden on campus, except when directed against Jews or Israelis.

Against all this is the point that criticism is the essence of learning, and that learning is impossible without it.

Two of my own lessons about the nature of higher education derived from people who have been colleagues and friends in the political science department (and among its retirees) for more than 40 years. One was introduced to my work by a negative review that I published about one of his books, then acted to recruit me to his department. He felt that students and colleagues would benefit from someone who worked in the same field, but in a manner different from him. Another has written from the far left that Israel is a fascist society. However, we once talked when he picked me up at a bus stop. It was 1982, he was in the dusty uniform of a major in the IDF reserves, on his way home from Lebanon. Most of the way to our neighborhood, he spoke with pride about his activities in the past week as a tank commander. Then he sought to recruit me to join him in the next day’s demonstration against the war The day after, he’d be returning north for another spell of fighting.

What saves the better places in the messy arena of higher education is the right of those who feel criticized to respond in kind, whether they are students, faculty, members of the public or politicians.

Neither Kasher nor Bennett should be surprised that they are being trashed by people they are trying to control.

Comments welcome.


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