Ben-Gurion University Politics Department threatened with closure

AURDIP | 20 septembre 2012 | Le département de sciences politiques de l’Université Ben Gourion, en Israël, est menacé de fermeture. Ce département est réputé pour accueillir quelques uns des….

AURDIP | 20 septembre 2012 |

Le département de sciences politiques de l’Université Ben Gourion,
en Israël, est menacé de fermeture. Ce département est réputé pour
accueillir quelques uns des rares chercheurs critiques de la politique
israélienne vis à vis des Palestiniens, dont Haim Yacobi, son directeur,
et Niv Gordon, le précédent directeur. La plupart des commentateurs
s’accordent à dire que ces deux faits sont liés, comme en témoigne
cet article de Haaretz traduit en français.

Alors qu’au même moment, un établissement des territoires illégalement
occupés depuis 1967 vient de se voir élever au titre d’Université
(à Ariel) par le gouvernement de Benyamin Netanyahou, alors que les
universités palestiniennes survivent à peine, on voit encore une fois
à quelles fins est utilisée l’Université en Israël.

L’autorité universitaire israélienne et l’écrasante majorité de ses
membres est alliée au gouvernement israélien, au service de sa
politique, de son idéologie et de son armée. Ces récents événements
confirment, si besoin était, que l’institution universitaire mérite
bien d’être boycottée en tant que telle, comme le confirme cet article
du Guardian
traduit en français.

Les voix dissidentes, progressistes et courageuses au sein des
universités israéliennes, qui soutiennent l’appel palestinien à mettre
en place des stratégies de boycott institutionnel de l’État israélien,
se font de plus en plus rares, et pour cause. Soutenons les contre leurs
tutelles et réitérons notre refus de collaborer avec les universités israéliennes
tant qu’Israël ne respectera pas le droit international en Palestine.


Reecia Orzeck | 17 septembre 2012 |

Dear geographers,

As some of you know, the Department of Politics and Government at Ben
Gurion University is home to some of Israel’s most progressive scholars,
including two political geographers. These scholars regularly expose and
condemn unjust policies and practices within Israel and the Palestinian

This department is now in danger of being shut down. Israel’s Council of
Higher Education has proposed this, citing the department’s failure to
comply with the recommendations of an evaluation committee (to grow
mainstream and positivist scholarship and teaching). In fact, the
department has already taken substantial steps to comply with the
committee’s recommendations despite the inaccuracy of many aspects of its

As a Haaretz editorial recently put it, “The closure of BGU’s Department
of Politics and Government, without allowing more time to fix any
remaining deficiencies, gives one the impression that the decision was
based not on issues of academic quality but on political considerations.”

Details of the case can be found in this Haaretz editorial, as well as in
the text pasted below.

At the end of this email is a list of names and email addresses of some of
the people involved in this issue (Council and committee members), as well
as others who might be compelled to speak out against the Council’s
decision (administrators of Israeli universities). Consider emailing them
and letting them know what you think about this transgression against
academic freedom.

Reecia Orzeck, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Geography-Geology
Illinois State University

The department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the
Negev is currently under threat of being shut down.

This saga began when the Council of Higher Education established an
international evaluation committee to scrutinize political science
departments in Israel.

From the very beginning, the process was mired by irregularities. First,
Prof. Ian Lustick, a prominent American political scientist from U of Penn
and an internationally recognized expert on Israeli society and politics,
was removed from the evaluation committee for unknown reasons. In
response, the original committee chair, Prof. Robert Shapiro of Columbia
University, resigned and the political science department at Hebrew
University stopped cooperating with the committee. The committee was
subsequently recomposed with Prof. Thomas Risse from Frei University in
Berlin taking the helm (Risse was aware that the other people resigned and
still took it on), and included such people as Israeli Prof. Avraham
Diskin who had previously written articles in support of the radical right
wing group Im Tirzu.

This committee, whose members are praised as positivist and empiricist
political scientists produced a report that was not only biased but erred
on key facts, errors that facilitated its unprecedented conclusion – the
department which was established purposefully in order to foster and
advance interdisciplinary, critical and qualitative research (the kind of
research which is currently under represented in all other political
science departments in Israel) was instructed to introduce mainstream
positivist political science into its research and curricula. Failing to
do so, the Council of Higher Education should consider shutting it down.

This evaluation, which was biased both politically and disciplinarily, was
also based on basic factual errors. For example: The committee counted
only 50% of the referreed articles published by department members. And
while criticizing the department at BGU, they praised the department of
political science at Tel-Aviv University which published the same amount
of articles but have twice as many faculty members.

In the original report they erroneously stated that faculty members have
not published books in leading academic publishing houses, but the nine
full-time faculty have, in fact, published six books in the three years
prior to the report, of which three appeared in the top 10 academic
publishing houses (California, Cornell, Columbia), two more with
Routledge, and a sixth with the top press in France.

The excellent quality of scholarship members of the department have
produced, and the fact that they are frequent and welcome guest at the
best academic institutes (Radcliff College at Harvard, the Institute for
Advanced Studies at Princeton, the school of public health at Chicago, or
Cambridge University) has found little echo in the report. The committee
was also not impressed with the average grant per faculty member, which is
over $100,000, a relatively high sum in the discipline, and perhaps the
highest among political science departments in Israel.
Finally, this fall graduates from the department are beginning their PhDs
at universities like Columbia and Northwestern.

On the basis of such errors the committee under-evaluated the department
in terms of individual merit, and could easily direct its criticism to the
« excessive social activism » of its members – which means nothing but their
leftist political leaning – and to the interdisciplinary ethos and of the
department (where half of the faculty come from fields like political
geography, public health, and history).

For obvious bureaucratic and political reasons, the administration of Ben
Gurion University felt it had to comply with the report and directed the
department to hire three faculty members in areas mentioned in the report:
comparative politics, quantitative methods and political theory and to
introduce some changes to the curriculum. Two international evaluators –
Thomas Risse and Ellen M. Immergut, appointed by the Council to oversee
the implementation of the report, wrote in a letter sent to the Council
that they « congratulate the department on successfully recruiting three
new faculty members in the areas of comparative politics, quantitative
methods, and political theory, and for its plans for a fourth recruitment
next year. » They called upon the University to allow these young scholars
« the time, resources, and mentoring to publish in top ranked international
refereed journals and university presses, » in a way that would help the
department « fulfill its deficits in mainstream political science, » adding
that « the department should increase its diversity in terms of methods and
theoretical orientations in future recruitments ». No criticism or
sanctions were mentioned in this letter.

And yet, last week a sub-committee within the Council of Higher Education
followed this letter with a proposal to shut down the department because
it failed to comply with the report of the international committee. The
gap between the report filed by Risse and Immergut and the decision
reached by the sub-committee of the Council of Higher Education
underscores that this whole “evaluation process” has turned into a witch
hunt, or was such a hunt in disguise from the beginning. For reasons which
are difficult – or too easy? – to understand, the authors of the
abovementioned letter, professors Risse and Immegut, have failed so far to
clarify their opinion about the way their service to the Council of Higher
Education has been abused so as to silence excellent academics some of
whom happen to be identified as active members of the left in Israel.