Education minister vows to punish Israeli professors who back academic boycott

Gideon Sa’ar says government will act during the summer against academics who joined call for Israel boycott.

By Or Kashti | Ha’aretz | 21/06/2010 |

A few days after saying he intends to take action against Israeli professors who call for an academic boycott of Israel, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar is scheduled to appear on Monday before the Knesset Education Committee to discuss the limits of freedom of expression in schools.

Sa’ar refused to provide Haaretz with details of what action he plans to take. His statements, made in the Knesset plenum Wednesday, « speak for themselves, » a spokesperson said.

The comments came some time after Ben-Gurion University Professor Neve Gordon, a vocal proponent of an academic boycott against Israel, received a death threat through the mail.

The principals of two Tel Aviv high schools, Zeev Dagani and Ram Cohen, who have publicly criticized the government’s policies in the territories, have also been invited to today’s committee meeting.

Dagani, the principal of the Herzliya Gymnasia high school, has publicly opposed Sa’ar’s plan to send Israel Defense Forces officers into classrooms to encourage students to enlist in the army, and Cohen has often lectured his students about the Israeli occupation.

The panel will also discuss the Islamic Movement’s influence on students in Arab schools.

In last week’s comments, Sa’ar said it was « important to examine the issues » raised in a report by on-campus Zionist advocacy group Im Tirtzu that alleges that anti-Zionist trends have taken root in political science instruction at Israel’s universities. However, Sa’ar would not say whether he would indeed look into the accusations.

Sa’ar’s statements were part of a discussion in the Knesset plenum initiated by MKs Uri Ariel (National Union ) and Yulia Shamalov Berkovich (Kadima ) on the issue of « the post-Zionist takeover of Israeli academia. » The discussion was prompted by the Im Tirtzu report, which stated that 80 percent of the research papers taught at political science courses in Israeli universities are « anti-Zionist and anti-nationalist. » The report was roundly criticized by academics and public figures, but Im Tirtzu officials said they stood behind the study.

« Israeli academia apparently suffers from ‘Palestinomania,’ a mild psychological illness whose symptoms include self-hatred, an affinity for Israel’s enemies, Jewish anti-Semitism and/or anti-Zionism, » Shamalov Berkovich said in the Knesset. « The spread of ‘Palestinomania’ demands the immediate and painful treatment for all of our sake, and the sooner the better. »

Ariel called on Sa’ar to establish a ministerial inquiry to probe the accusations contained in Im Tirtzu’s report.

Sa’ar said: « I think that the Im Tirtzu report is important in the sense that it generates public debate. It is important to examine the issues raised in the report. »

In his statements to the plenum, Sa’ar referred specifically to professors who have backed calls to boycott Israeli universities.

« This is something that is impossible to accept, » Sa’ar said. « I have already spoken about this with the head of the Higher Education Council’s planning and budgeting committee [Manuel Trajtenberg], and there will be measures taken vis-a-vis the heads of these institutions. This matter is on our agenda – and we plan on taking action over the course of the summer. »

Ariel seemed to understand Sa’ar as saying he plans to investigate the charges. His office released a statement reading: « The education minister said that he plans on thoroughly probing the charges made by Im Tirtzu this coming summer. »

A spokesperson for Trajtenberg refused to comment when reached by Haaretz, deferring to Sa’ar’s office.

« It would behoove the education minister to ignore the report, which emits an aroma of McCarthyism, » said Professor Yossi Ben-Artzi, the rector of the University of Haifa. « I hope he will understand the gravity of the very fact of monitoring and informing on lecturers, and of whether he even needs to take seriously an organization like Im Tirtzu, which causes incitement. » Earlier this year Sa’ar took part in a conference organized by Im Tirtzu. « I place great importance in this gathering, » he said. « Campus activism is hugely vital, and this is what you are doing. For this, you will be blessed. » « I very much appreciate this work, which gives expression to an authentic Zeitgeist felt by the public and is much needed on our campuses, » Sa’ar said of Im Tirtzu. « I came to tell you: God speed. »