The pro-Israel ideological wars continue at Ben Gurion University (BGU), where knives were sharpened after faculty member, Neve Gordon published a groundbreaking op-ed in the L.A. Times advocating the BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) movement as a means of opposing Israel’s Occupation. Now, there is news that a right-wing BGU trustee, Michael Gross, after seeing Prof. David Newman interviewed on the BBC documentary (starting about 19:25 in the video above), Dispatches, wrote him an e mail wishing him dead:
Mr Gross [the trustee] sent two emails to Prof Newman after the political geography professor, also British-born, appeared on last month’s Channel 4 Dispatches strand, which examined Britain’s pro-Israel lobby.
Prof Newman, who has been at BGU for 21 years, did not directly criticise Israeli policy in the programme…
Mr Gross, who…sits on BGU’s international board of governors, emailed Prof Newman after the programme’s transmission…“I saw your disgusting contribution to the Dispatches programme. I will use whatever influence I have at BGU to have you thrown out…I hope you perish.”
He later sent another message: “The sooner you are removed from BGU and the face of the earth, the better.”
I have spent many years in academia as an undergraduate and graduate student and university fundraiser. Frankly, I’ve never heard of a university trustee doing such a thing. It’s beyond astonishing. I can certainly understand that a right-wing pro-Israel trustee like Gross would be angry with Newman for appearing on a TV show that he viewed as harming Israel’s interests. But wishing him dead? And not once, but twice? This is simply beyond the pale and should not be countenanced by a legitimate institution of higher education.
Of course, there is the issue of academic freedom, which Gross’ grossly threatening language violated. But beyond that, Gross wished a distinguished member of the BGU faculty DEAD. Can this be acceptable in civil discourse in a university community? Especially when the individual levelling the threat is a university trustee?
128 BGU faculty signed a letter of protest (gathered over a mere 48 hours) addressed to the chairman of the school’s board of governors, former Goldman Sachs vice chairman, Roy Zuckerberg. They wrote in part:
We find it quite incredible that a person [Gross] capable of writing such letters should have a place on any Board of Governors, in particular that of a University. The letters signal an attitude of total disdain for the principles of academic discourse based on open debate, and for free inquiry of any kind, and we believe that there is no place in the BGU community for people who are capable of writing such letters. The fact that Mr. Gross wishes to use his financial assets as leverage, and seeks to control who should, and should not, be employed by the university, renders his behaviour even more egregious. We accordingly ask that you use your position as Chairman of the Board of Governors to ensure that Mr. Gross issue a formal and public apology to Prof. Newman, or alternatively ask for his resignation from his position as a member of the Board of Governors.
Zuckerberg, rather astonishingly replied to the letter by addressing both Gross and Newman as two naughty schoolboys who’d just had a fist fight in the schoolyard:
…Both of you by your own admission have made errors of judgment. I am not going to assign grades or degrees of blame, nor do I plan to take any of the actions suggested by you and some of your colleagues.
I must insist, however, that both of you drop the issue, enough damage has already been incurred to the good name of the University, and any further prolongation of the dispute will only exacerbate the situation.
…I call on both of you to return to applying your talents and resources in constructive channels.
I anticipate we can now end this matter.
A fellow trustee of his university has wished a faculty member dead and the chairman of the board wishes to wash his hands of the matter with a statement best summarized as “boys will be boys.” Zuckerberg is the chairman of an institution of higher learning, not Goldman Sachs. This incident has huge repurcussions in terms of violation of academic freedom and just plain abusive conduct. Yet Zuckerberg writes as if he’s admonishing two rogue traders who had a fist fight on the trading floor. This will not do.
Another unintentionally comic aspect of this donnybrook is this statement by British pro-Israel academic and columnist, Geoffrey Alderman:
The now very public slanging match involving Michael Gross and David Newman, reported in the JC last month, represents, for me, a multiple sadness.
…The language used by Mr Gross [in his attack on Newman] is not the language I would have used. At the same time, Professor Newman’s decision to appear on Peter Oborne’s pseudo-documentary — apparently without any editorial control — is not the decision I would have made.
Academic freedom is a precious commodity. But it doesn’t give an academic the licence to say what he or she pleases. There is, for example, such a thing as bringing one’s university into disrepute, and during an academic career now in its 48th year it has been my sad duty to have had to deal with a number of such cases, involving academics (some very senior) who felt they could, with impunity, bite the hand that fed them.
I’m sorry to use the word “astonishing” so often in this piece, but here we have another piece written by an academic, of all things, which completely misconstrues the meaning of the term academic freedom. In fact, this concept DOES give a member of the academy to ‘say what he or she pleases’ as long as it is truthful and accurate. And nothing Newman said in this documentary was untruthful or inaccurate or even incendiary. Academic freedom does, in fact, allow a faculty member to ‘bite the hand that fed them’ if doing so is in the interest of the pursuit of knowledge, the essential mission of academia. Not that Newman was doing anything of the sort through his participation.
Further, I find it again, well, astonishing that a fellow academic, when faced with something close to a death threat (or at least “death wish”) would refuse to rally in the latter’s defense. Alderman, who seems eminently lacking in empathic spirit, should himself face such a threat and then we’d see how he would react and what he would have a right to expect from his own colleagues in support.
But here’s the real clincher:
At this point, I must declare an interest. It is a matter of public knowledge that I am privileged to hold, at the University of Buckingham, a professorial appointment endowed by Mr Gross. It is from this endowment that part of my salary is paid. But I must add at once that Mr Gross has never sought to influence either my academic work or my extra-mural media activities. On a great number of issues affecting world Jewry, he and I happen to agree. On some others we do not. But we respect each other’s views, and independence.
Of course, Alderman “respects” Gross’ “views” on Newman and has little or no problem with them. As for independence…did that man say ‘independence?’ How independent is he when Gross virtually signs his paycheck. In fact, it is a journalistic travesty that the Jewish Chronicle, Britain’s main Jewish periodical, published this column. Alderman has a huge conflict of interest and anything he says on this subject is colored by his professional association with Gross. And having Alderman declare himself independent and therefore able to be objective in this matter is deplorable. It’s like a white 1960s southerner telling you he’s no racist. Of course, Alderman thinks he’s fair and balanced. But it’s not up to an interested party to make such a judgment. That should be in the hands of a sober editor, something the Chronicle apparently doesn’t possess.
Gross must go. To have him continue as a director of Ben Gurion risks making the institution look like the donors run the show and are able to call for the demise of any faculty member they dislike. Besides, Israel lately has been the victim of numerous incidents of violence and terror by Jews against fellow Jews (not to mention Palestinians as well). In fact, settler terrorist, Jack Teitel has admitted to Israeli police that he planted a bomb intended to kill Hebrew University professor Zeev Sternhell. In light of this how can BGU countenance retaining Gross on its board? I would like to ask Roy Zuckerberg what it would take for him to actually force Gross off the board? Newman’s death? Or merely a bomb placed outside his front door as happened to Prof. Sternhell?
I’m not claiming that Gross would do such a thing. But he came perilously close to suggesting as much in his atrocious e-mail remarks. Or at least suggesting that someone else who killed Newman would receive Gross’ approbation. This is garbage pure and simple and should not be winked at or treated with a slap on the wrist as Zuckerberg has done.