A modest proposal

By Rachel Giora

Like the president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Prof. Rivka Carmi, I too believe the demand that Dr. Neve Gordon resign as head of the university’s Department of Politics and Government is a legitimate and even modest demand, given the financial damage the university will sustain if he fails to do so. Accordingly, it is up to Gordon, who desires what is best for his institution, to comply with the demand forthwith.

Carmi’s appeal to her faculty colleagues reveals that the economic crisis has dealt the university a severe blow: Donations are dwindling, and its financial situation has never been this bad. Gordon’s call for a boycott of Israel, as published in his op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times – a newspaper with a wide circulation, “particularly among Jews,” – could, in Carmi’s words, cause devastating harm: “Without these donations, we have no life, and certainly no development and progress,” she wrote. What is being demanded of Gordon is therefore a modest sacrifice, a small bone to be tossed to the donors.

Thus the many faculty members from all of the universities in this country who have urged Carmi “to declare that she regrets her initial reaction and that she encourages political activity by lecturers from all shades of the political spectrum,” will presumably reconsider their position in view of the high price, in hard cash, that freedom of expression exacts.

By her own account, Carmi has received an unprecedented flow of angry e-mails and phone calls from Jewish donors in Israel and abroad. There can be no doubt that faculty members understand the significance of this.

It is also reasonable to assume that the faculty members who elected Gordon to his post, and who want him to remain there, will understand the motive behind the demand that he resign, even though thousands of messages of support for Gordon have also reached Carmi – an indication of the tremendous harm her response is causing the university.

For example, Prof. David Ingleby, who is involved in the European Union’s research initiatives, has written Carmi that Israel’s preferential status in these projects could be harmed because of the contempt BGU is showing for academia’s traditional commitment to democratic traditions.

And Prof. Virginia H. Aksan, president of the Middle Eastern Studies Association of North America, which has a membership of over 3,000 scholars, has demanded that Carmi withdraw the threat to Gordon’s position and protect freedom of expression.

But one can understand Carmi. There is not as much money behind the above arguments as there is behind the donors’ demands. Also sure to understand are those students who have written Carmi that “we are taught history, but we are forbidden to learn from it. In gender studies, we are taught to identify violent discourse, but we are expected to go on speaking the routine and familiar militaristic language. We are taught to be social workers, but not to identify with exploited cleaning workers. Learning is allowed, but not drawing practical conclusions – especially not in a newspaper, in English, with a large circulation.”

These students will certainly ultimately realize that the existence of research universities in Israel depends on those who have money to give them, and thereby also the ability to dictate the subjects of research and the limits of freedom of thought and expression.

Students, you are our future, and I have a modest proposal for you: Stay in the ivory tower. Try not to see reality as it is. And certainly do not describe it with pejorative words like “apartheid” or try to change it. Try to understand, in practical terms, what is worth studying and what you are better off not publishing, since your future depends mainly on the degree of flexibility you can display and on your ability to toe the line. Above all, you must remember that to adapt is to survive. See the Carmi case.

The writer is a professor at Tel Aviv University.

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