Dear President Carmi:
We write to express our concern over your response to the recent Los Angeles Times Op-Ed (“Boycott Israel,” August 20, 2009) by Dr. Neve Gordon, senior lecturer and chair of the Government and Politics Department at Ben-Gurion University. In his article, Gordon described Israel as an apartheid state and called for an international boycott of his country.
In your public statements responding to Gordon—notably your own Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times, “Neve Gordon’s Divisive Op-Ed,” September 1, 2009)—you declare that although Israeli law prohibits you from dismissing him, he “has forfeited his ability to work effectively within the academic setting, with his colleagues in Israel and around the world.”
In your article you claim to distinguish academic freedom, which “exists to ensure that there is an unfettered and free discussion of ideas relating to research and teaching and to provide a forum for the debate of complicated ideas that may challenge accepted norms,” from Neve Gordon’s use of “his pulpit as a university faculty member to advocate a personal opinion” that you dismiss as “demagoguery cloaked in academic theory.” But the whole point of academic freedom—and indeed tenure—is to protect scholars’ rights to express their opinions, by definition “personal,” however controversial these may be.
No doubt you too are expressing a personal opinion when you denounce Dr. Gordon and warn that he “has forfeited his ability to work effectively within the academic setting.” Even without a direct threat of dismissal, such an extreme condemnation emanating from the head of a university carries special weight. Israel’s academic institutions are a legitimate source of great pride to the country and carry considerable international prestige.
Moreover, Israeli universities are among the few academic institutions in the Middle East committed to academic freedom, and that is in large part why they are so successful and carry such weight. They can and should serve as a model for the region and the world. As the president of such an institution, you bear a special responsibility: to protect and defend the autonomy and freedom of expression of your colleagues, even—especially—when you find them offensive.
Instead, you have conveyed to the faculty of Ben-Gurion University that their careers may be imperiled if they express a view with which you happen to disagree. Such statements by a university president will inevitably have a chilling effect on the climate of open inquiry and unrestricted debate—at a time when Israel needs such debate and discussion more than ever.
Some of us disagree with Dr. Gordon’s views, and none of us advocates a boycott of Israel. But we believe that he was entirely within his rights to offer his opinions. We urge you to make publicly explicit that you will oppose any move to punish or censor him for his controversial political opinions.
Jonathan Cole, Columbia University; Harvey Cox, Harvard University; Tony Judt, New York University; Stanley Katz, Princeton University; John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago; Everett Mendelsohn, Harvard University; Richard Samuels, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Avi Shlaim, University of Oxford; Fritz Stern, Columbia University; Stephen Walt, Harvard University (affiliations for identification purposes only)