Israel’s Bar Ilan University: letting the side down yet again

Professor Hanoch Sheinman is one of Israel’s most distinguished legal philosophers. Like many thoughtful Israelis, he deplores the illegal and oppressive aspects of Israel’s foreign policy.  He is not shy about this. During the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza, Sheinman introduced a bland housekeeping email to his law students by saying he hoped it,

‘finds you in a safe place, and that you, your families and those dear to you are not among the hundreds of people that were killed, the thousands wounded, or the tens of thousands whose homes were destroyed or were forced to leave their homes during, or as a direct result of, the violent confrontation in the Gaza Strip and its environs.’

Many of Sheinman’s right wing students were enraged. How dare a professor express political views in a work email? How dare a Jewish law faculty employ such a person? How dare anyone suggest the moral equivalence of innocent Israeli and innocent Palestinian lives?

Bar Ilan University’s Dean of Law, Shahar Lifshitz, sided with the outraged students, announcing that their complaints were justifiable: ‘[The] Letter from Professor Sheinman – both content and style – is contrary to the values ​​of the University and the Faculty of Law.’ He continued, ‘This is abuse of power by a lecturer who exploits his position as a jurisprudence teacher to send messages reflecting his views, which are highly offensive to the feelings of students and their families. ‘ Lifshitz promised to deal with Sheinman in due course: ‘I assure you that the matter will be handled with the appropriate seriousness.’

Now one might debate whether a politically charged email is protected by academic freedom. Still, it seems to me that I should be permitted to introduce an email by writing, for example, ‘I hope this finds you healthy and well, and that you have not been driven to food banks as a result of the Government’s policies on student loans.’ That might be gauche or inappropriate—I imagine that my Conservative students and colleagues might think so—but it would be ludicrous to say it amounts to an ‘abuse of power’ or the ‘exploitation’ of a professor’s position.

In any case, even if Professor Sheinman’s comment was not protected by academic freedom, Dean Lifshitz’s threat was condemned by it. For it is clear that by ‘appropriate seriousness’ Lifshitz did not mean ‘the degree of seriousness appropriate to an otherwise innocent, one-off comment that gravely offends some students’ (viz: a degree of about zero). No; Lifshitz plainly meant a degree of seriousness that might warrant formal reprimand, or worse.   When Deans make threats like that, they do not need to carry them out in order restrict the academic freedoms on which teaching, learning and scholarship depend. That they show themselves ready to do so is enough. If there was any ‘abuse of power’ or ‘exploitation’ of one’s position in this matter, it was on the part of Dean Lifshitz.

As is common in cases like this, everyone could see that except the victim’s own colleagues. They mostly went scurrying for cover. (Advice to junior faculty: never get between your senior colleagues and their own self-image.) It fell to outsiders to defend Sheinman. Bad press, the intervention of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, pressure from hundreds of foreign academics, and threats of lawsuit eventually induced Lifshitz to think again. On reflection, he acknowledged that he had mis-spoken in promising the students that Sheinman ‘will be handled’.

A story at The Leiter Reports now suggests that Lifshitz has been having second thoughts all over again.  A poisonous atmosphere, angry students, and a truculent administration have paved the way for an  ‘interim review’ being imposed on the as-yet-untenured Sheinman.   His lawyers claim that this procedure has been set up without proper university authority, that it is imposed retroactively, and that Sheinman has not been given reasonable opportunity to prepare for it. I have been told by sources close to the Bar Ilan administration that they expect Sheinman to be in trouble on the teaching side. (It is inconceivable that Sheinman’s research could be found wanting; he is more able, and already much more distinguished, than all but a few of Bar Ilan’s tenured law faculty.) Given that outraged students led the charge against Sheinman in the first place, and that the Dean encouraged them, nothing would be less surprising than for Sheinman to be confronted with bad student evaluations. It is amazing that he even manages to continue his research in such a poisonous atmosphere.

You may be tempted to roll your eyes and say, as Rick does to Ilsa in Casablanca, ‘the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.’ But it is precisely because academic life in Israel has become so crazy that this matters so much. Bar Ilan’s image problem is nothing new. After all, its law faculty is the alma mater of Itzakh Rabin’s murderer; it is a university where male students can be kicked out of lectures for refusing to wear a kippa, where the administration can demand that faculty defend the contents of their books, and where gay students are prohibited from holding events on campus. Life in the bush league, you say? Maybe; but put this in the national context. Israel’s universities are all struggling to resist the academic boycott movement. Bar Ilan is, shall we say, not exactly helping the cause. Many Israeli academics feel under intense pressure to show that they are not just lackeys of Brand Israel. The Bar Ilan law faculty are doing nothing to help them either.

The latest criticism has now elicited a ‘reply’ from nine of Bar Ilan’s tenured law professors.   Their letter is embarrassingly irrelevant.   Were it a first year student’s answer to a statement of claim it would get a failing grade. It does not even notice, let alone answer, the gravity of the charge: that, as applied, this particular review is unfair and is motivated by Bar Ilan’s desire to silence faculty who, like Sheinman, infuriate their right-wing students. Instead, they irrelevantly say that other law faculties have interim reviews, and they reaffirm their touching faith that ‘Prof. Sheinman’s political views will have no bearing on the committee’s evaluation of his performance. Neither will the letter that Prof. Sheinman sent to students during the 2014 war in Gaza.’

Clap your hands if you believe.

 

 

 

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