Neve Gordon’s Op-Ed Spurs Academic Freedom Debate

Neve Gordon’s August 20 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, in which he supports an international boycott of Israel as “the only way to save his country”, has sparked controversy and debate over the nature and extent of academic freedom of speech.

“It is indeed not a simple matter for me as an Israeli citizen to call on [international entities] to suspend cooperation with Israel”, said Gordon, a faculty member at Ben-Gurion University (BGU) in Israel and the author of Israel’s Occupation, in the op-ed. He went on to say that “Israel has reached a historic crossroads, and times of crisis call for dramatic measures.” Describing Israel as “an apartheid state” where “[t]he Palestinians are stateless and lack many of the most basic human rights,” he concluded that “the only way to counter the apartheid trend in Israel is through massive international pressure.” This belief, Gordon said, is behind his decision to “support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign meant to pressure Israel in a ‘gradual, sustainable manner that is sensitive to context and capacity.'”

Many were outraged by the article. Haaretz reported that Israel’s Education Minister Gideon Saar called Gordon’s statements “deplorable”, and Rivka Carmi, the president of BGU, responded on September 1 in her own LA Times op-ed, saying that while the university supports freedom of speech among its faculty, Gordon’s op-ed “oversteps the boundaries of academic freedom–because it has nothing to do with it”, and could damage the university.

“Academic freedom exists to ensure that there is 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. Gordon, however, used his pulpit as a university faculty member to advocate a personal opinion…” Carmi said. She added that Gordon’s article had angered donors and inspired calls to boycott BGU, potentially punishing students and faculty and jeopardizing many Arab-Israeli collaborative projects dedicated to development in the region. Carmi said that it would be illegal to fire Gordon, who has tenure, but by supporting a boycott, he had “forfeited his ability to work effectively within the academic setting, with colleagues in Israel and around the world.”

Others have come to Gordon’s defense. Ynet News reported that some BGU faculty and students sent a letter to President Carmi supporting Gordon’s right to freely express his views. The Middle East Studies Association, in another letter, expressed concern at the university’s response: “[It] is precisely in moments of political crisis that the principles of academic freedom are tested,” the letter said. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) issued a statement saying: “This incident is about a much more fundamental right than academic freedom—it is about the freedom to express one’s personal political views, a right shared by all citizens in a democratic country, and one which enjoys the widest protection possible”.