70 senior Israeli academic signed a letter to the Council for Higher Education denouncing Bar Ilan University for using political considerations in its hiring and firing decisions. Dr. Ariella Azoulay, an international authority on photography and visual culture, was denied tenure after teaching there since 1999. Her appeal too was denied, which motivated the professors to protest that her firing was motivated by political persecution.
The University responded that its decision was solely based on academic considerations without detailing what they were. Critics give the lie to this claim, noting that Azoulay has published ten books, even more articles in scholarly journals, and is a highly sought after speaker at academic conferences in her field in the U.S. and Europe. She has also mentored scores of students and guided them in their careers in this and related fields. In short, she’s a model scholar. One almost any other university would be proud to have on its faculty.
She does have one severe blemish: she is a stout opponent of Israeli government policies. Apparently, it makes some higher-ups at Bar Ilan uncomfortable to have to rub shoulders with such a dissident for the next few decades. They’d rather share meals at the faculty club with like-minded souls than with anyone who might challenge too strongly their cherished illusions.
One of Israel’s most distinguished scholars, Prof. Yaron Ezrahi, criticized Bar Ilan:
Prof. Ezrachi of Hebrew University’s political science department said “Bar-Ilan has learned to conceal political considerations, disguising them as academic processes. We fear the precedent of firing lecturers for radical political views of any kind, despite their international academic excellence. This could contaminate the entire higher education system in Israel.”
Another major important consideration to which the University seems oblivious is its academic reputation. It seems far more interested in having a homogenous faculty which adheres to an imaginary political consensus than having a diverse, free-wheeling academic environment that is open to discourse and the free exchange of ideas.
Not reported in any Israeli news story about this is an alarming incident conveyed to me by an Israeli source that Navi Pillay, UN High Comissioner for Human Rights, was scheduled to address Bar Ilan’s law faculty during a recent visit to Israel. When the Forum for Eretz Yisrael, a far-right settler advocacy group, got wind of the speech it protested at the highest levels of the University and threatened a letter-writing campaign to wealthy donors which would harm the school’s fundraising prospects. The invitation was rescinded and Pillay never appeared.
Does this sound like a University that is playing in the big leagues or the bush leagues? Where major leaguers play, academics aren’t afraid of controversy, nor of rocking the boat. Controversial ideas don’t spook intellectuals who are secure in their faith in their own ability to think for themselves without having a censor to think for them. Apparently, that’s not how it works at Bar Ilan.
I also note that Prof. Menachem Klein was recently denied promotion to professor in the political science department at Bar Ilan. Unlike Azoulay, who did not have tenure, Klein cannot be fired because he does. The decision in Klein’s case also was political in nature since he too has numerous outstanding books, monographs and articles to his credit in his field, which is the study of Palestinian nationalism. In fact, he has a new book out in English which I’ll feature here. But Klein too is a harsh critic of Israeli policies and as such persona non grata in certain university circles.