By Rivka Carmi
September 1, 2009
As president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, I have always remained open and impartial to the wide diversity of opinions within our academic faculty and their right to free speech, no matter how controversial their views or writings may be.
However, I strongly believe a call for a worldwide boycott of Israel written by a Ben-Gurion University faculty member, Neve Gordon, that appeared in The Times oversteps the boundaries of academic freedom — because it has nothing to do with it.
Academic freedom exists to ensure that there is an unfettered and free discussion of ideas relating to research and teaching and to provide a forum for the debate of complicated ideas that may challenge accepted norms. Gordon, however, used his pulpit as a university faculty member to advocate a personal opinion, which is really demagoguery cloaked in academic theory.
Gordon argues that Israel is an “apartheid” state and that “a boycott would save Israel from itself.” But the empirical facts show that it would destroy the very fabric of the society that he claims to want to protect. Instead of investing in activities that promote coexistence, this “call for a boycott” is already being used to isolate Israel.
This is particularly pernicious for our university, a proudly Zionist institution that embodies the dream of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to bring development and prosperity to all the residents of the Negev region. This work — which includes community outreach and scientific innovation in Israel and around the world carried out by nearly 25,000 students, faculty and staff — is being threatened by the egregious remarks of one person, under the guise of academic freedom.
A number of online campaigns have been launched calling for donors and other supporters of the university to “boycott BGU.” We have heard the calls by those who demand that the university ignore Israeli law and fire Gordon, a tenured faculty member, on the basis of his statements. And we are also under attack by others who champion Gordon on the basis of freedom of speech.
Like it or not, Gordon cannot be readily dismissed. The law in Israel is very clear, and the university is a law-abiding institution.
At the same time, by calling on other entities, including academic institutions, to boycott Israel — and effectively, to boycott his own university — Gordon has forfeited his ability to work effectively within the academic setting, with his colleagues in Israel and around the world. After his very public, personal soul-searching in his Op-Ed article, leading to his extreme description of Israel as an “apartheid” state, how can he, in good faith, create the collaborative atmosphere necessary for true academic research and teaching?
The primary effect of Gordon’s Israel-bashing will be to detract from the work of his university. I am a doctor; my professional career has focused on preventing hereditary genetic diseases in the Bedouin Arab community. Today, the laboratory that I founded at Ben-Gurion University is working with Bedouin, Palestinian and Jordanian doctors and researchers to improve the health of Arab children across the region. This is but one of the many Israeli-Arab collaborations — in fields that range from developing advanced water technologies to solar energy, environmental conservation and emergency medicine — that will be compromised here if “collective punishment” for Gordon’s actions or for my opposition to his views is imposed on BGU.
There are many more hopeful and pragmatic voices to be heard at our institution than Gordon’s, and they are the ones who will ultimately guide us, and Israel, to a brighter future.
Rivka Carmi is the president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer-Sheva, Israel.
A member of the organizing committee’s letter to the editor in response to the above op-ed:
Contrary to what Carmi asserts, it is not Gordon who has overstepped “the boundaries of academic freedom,” but she herself.
Carmi substitutes the sanction of ostracism for dispassionate argument about the facts of the case. Gordon’s conclusion that Israel is an apartheid regime is based on facts, not on mere soul-searching.
Carmi cannot refute the evidence that Israel is an apartheid state, and tries to silence Gordon by pretending his “thought crime” goes beyond the pale of academically acceptable speech.
As another Israeli academic has said: “Only when Israeli society’s well-heeled strata pay a real price for the continuous occupation will they finally take genuine steps to put an end to it.”
That is why Gordon is right and Carmi wrong: The movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions is as applicable to Israel now as it ever was to South Africa.