Ben Gurion University president Rivka Carmi wrote an open letter to faculty and donors around the world in which she accused Prof. Neve Gordon of “treason” in writing an L.A. Times/Guardian op-ed endorsing the Global BDS movement:
…The severity and scope of the [Gordon’s] attack are unprecedented, both because of the article’s extremist line, which is perceived by many readers as an act of treason against the state of Israel…
…I am personally deeply disgusted by it.
I have spent many years as an undergraduate and graduate student on various campuses (Columbia, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Hebrew University, Jewish Theological Seminary) and have witnessed my share of acrimony and academic politics, but I have never heard a senior administrator use such vituperative language. In the United States, no doubt Carmi would be out of a job. It is a university president’s job to explain to the public how academic processes work. It is her job to explain that universities entertain unpopular ideas and that is a deliberate part of the process of inquiry and gaining knowledge. It is NOT her job to dump a faculty member at the earliest expedient opportunity.
Imagine if the Catholic Church’s medieval decree that the sun revolves around the earth had never been challenged. Galileo’s ideas were as unpopular then as Neve Gordon’s are now. The scientist suffered deeply for holding them. But fortunately there were others who persevered and eventually realized that the consensus was wrong and that Galileo’s unpopular idea was right. Rivka Carmi is nothing more and nothing less than Pope Leo, an errant, misguided leader who cravenly tacks whichever way the political winds blow.
My earlier professional career was as a major gifts fundraiser for several large universities and colleges, a hospital, and other non-profits. The most elemental rules of public communication on behalf of fundraising goals instruct you that donors want to build things. They want to create something that will make a difference. Therefore, fundraisers always emphasize the positive. You never want to communicate with donors on the basis of disaster or imminent catastrophe. Donors do not want to save you from the poor house or stave off ruin. Such negativity is the bane of fundraising campaigns.
Which is why the language and tone of her letter is entirely counter-productive. She’s the Chicken Little of university presidents. And much of her hysterical language about impending doom caused by Gordon’s single article is simply not believable:
…This article will likely cause a destructive blow to fundraising for the university, and the article’s potential damage to the university budget…is vast.
I see it as my duty to share with you my fears about the damage and its dire influence on the university’s financial situation, on its academic and social reputation, on its professional prestige and the loyalty of each and every one of us.
…This type of article brands the university as one unworthy of support from the Jewish world. Many of those who contacted me emphasized that they will never again support a university who employs a faculty member willing to harm the state like this and that they will recommend that their friends to follow suit.
…All I want is to share with you the distress in which…the university currently finds itself and…share my fears of what is likely to happen to the future and growth/flourishing of the university.
Carmi actually expects that her donor base will rally round the flag and send their shekels streaming into BGU by turning into a Richard Viguerie and screaming hysterically about the traitors in their midst who threaten not just the university, but the very foundations of the state. This goes beyond hyperbole. It is simply impermissible speech in an academic context. There can be no such thing as a legitimate academic or political idea that “harms the state.” In effect, what Carmi has done is to invite the Shin Bet to haul Gordon in and accuse him of being a traitor to the state. On what basis can she say that? What secret has Gordon given away? What weapons system has he compromised?
Carmi reminds me of Sterling Hayden’s brilliant comic character, Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove. She accuses Gordon, in effect of draining Israel’s “precious bodily fluids” in order to make Israel vulnerable to its enemies. Does any university president deserve their job who stoops to such nonsense? An indication of just how weak academic freedom is within Israel is the fact that there has been virtually no backlash against Carmi. Clearly, the president doesn’t care to hear opposing points of view, but if you want to make yours known to her contact her here.
Prof. Shlomo Sand of Tel Aviv University has published a scathing attack on Pres. Carmi’s rhetoric in Yediot Achronot (Hebrew only). In it, he reveals that Carmi called Ben Gurion University:
…A Zionist institution which realizes the vision of David Ben Gurion on a daily basis advancing the development of the Negev and the State of Israel.
This is astonishing. How does a university as a whole embody an ideology? Can we teach math or French or nuclear physics as “Zionist” disciplines? What does this even mean? Do we want to bring back the Zionist equivalent of “Communist science” in which academic disciplines existed to serve ideological purposes? We all know how well that went.
The Tel Aviv University professor points out that Ben Gurion is an Israeli, and not a Zionist university. There is a world of difference between the two. Carmi could’ve remained content with the claim that Gordon somehow damaged the State of Israel, and this would have been a harsh enough criticism (and false). But she upped the ante as all ideologues do by claiming that Gordon’s endorsement of the boycott movement is anti-Zionist, which it is not. Yes, there are those who support boycott who are anti-Zionist. But doing so does not ipso facto render one anti-Zionist. In fact, Gordon has made clear that it is precisely because he fears so deeply for Israel’s future that he endorses the radical option of BDS.
Sand further reminds his readers that there are many students and some faculty at Ben Gurion who are not Jewish and probably not Zionist, including a large population of Bedouin. What does Carmi’s language say about their role in her school? Does BGU shun its non-Zionist students and faculty? Or does it suffer their presence there reluctantly? In effect, Carmi’s rhetoric has gotten her up a creek without a paddle. How can you rightly say that yours is an institution dedicated to the ancient traditions of learning, of pure inquiry, and the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, when you’ve basically sold that birthright for a mess of Zionist porridge?
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.