TEL AVIV // A small but influential right-leaning student group has shaken Israel's academic community after launching a campaign to purge top universities of what it deems their anti-Zionist bias. The group, Im Tirtzu, has drawn wide condemnation after the Israeli media recently reported that it had threatened to drive donations and students away from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev unless the "anti-Zionist tilt" among the staff and in the curriculum of the institution's politics and government department is altered.
Im Tirtzu's threat is the latest salvo in an intensifying bid by right-leaning groups, including NGO Monitor, IsraCampus and the Institute for Zionist Strategies, to influence Israel's university studies. But Im Tirtzu's actions received much wider attention because its recent report on allegedly "anti-Zionist" trends at universities has gained support from Israel's right-leaning education minister, Gideon Saar, as well as from some prominent media and academic figures. Some analysts say that such backing may have been spurred amid Israel's predominantly hardline government's battle against the growing perception abroad and at home about the illegitimacy of the concept of Zionism.
Most university professors - like the Israeli Jewish public - back the basic tenets of Zionism, which call for the self-determination of Jews in what they consider their historic homeland. But their views vary widely on the role Zionism should play in resolving the long-simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The debate has intensified in recent years as a handful of professors voiced support for an academic boycott against Israel to pressure the country to change its policies towards the Palestinians.
Im Tirtzu's move has highlighted the controversy over Zionism and prompted warnings from academic officials and public figures that an endorsement of the group's threatening letter endangers not only academic freedom but also Israeli democracy. "Israeli society is on the verge of being consumed by a menacing wave of McCarthyism," Shlomo Gazit, a former president of Ben-Gurion University and the former head of Israel's military intelligence, wrote in a newspaper commentary this week. "If we ignore this wave and it's not stopped immediately, it will endanger - perhaps even destroy - Israeli democracy."
Im Tirtzu was set up by students at Jerusalem's Hebrew University in 2006. Its name means in Hebrew "if you will it", a part of a quotation from Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, who had become known for saying: "If you will it, it is no dream." The uproar arose when the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Im Tirtzu had sent a letter to Ben-Gurion University, threatening to pressure donors to cut contributions unless the institution addressed the "anti-Zionist tilt" in its politics and government department within 30 days. The group also warned that it would dissuade potential students from enrolling at the school if no action was taken.
Im Tirtzu had issued a report claiming that nine of 11 permanent faculty members in the government and politics department were tied to "radical left" political activity and six had signed a letter supporting refusal to serve in the army. As an example, it cited Neve Gordon, a professor who has called for a general boycott of Israel. Condemnation of Im Tirtzu's findings came quickly. Rivka Carmi, the president of Ben-Gurion University, blasted the letter as a "witch hunt." Joseph Klafter, Tel Aviv University's president, called it an "alarm signal" and added: "I cannot remember such a threat against a university institution."
In a large newspaper advertisement last week, the faculties of all of Israel's seven research universities denounced the "political pressures ... which are tantamount to blatant interference in academic freedom". Furthermore, the controversial US evangelical pastor John Hagee, a key donor of Im Tirtzu, cut his funding for the group, with his spokesman claiming the pastor had not been aware of its "political actions."
Nevertheless, the campaign by Im Tirtzu and other such groups has not been completely ineffective. Earlier this month, the state-run Council for Higher Education, which oversees universities, distributed to university presidents a report from the Institute for Zionist Strategies, a group chaired by a prominent West Bank Jewish settler, claiming that sociology departments had become centres of anti-Israel propaganda and incitement. While Yossi Ben-Artzi, the rector of the University of Haifa, said he was "shocked ? that the council thought we needed to respond to a report by an ideological and political organisation," Mr Klafter at Tel Aviv University agreed to have the reading lists in several sociology courses reviewed.
At Haifa University this week, hundreds of students circulated a list of at least 20 lecturers whom they view as pro-Palestinian and claimed their classes should be boycotted. Officials from the ruling right-wing Likud party have kept quiet about the controversy, and Mr Saar, drew criticism from academic officials by merely saying he condemned any move that would "harm donations" to Israeli universities.
Erez Tadmor, a leader of Im Tirtzu, rejected accusations that the group acted to slash academic freedom and charged that it was the "mouths of Zionist students" that were being shut at universities. In a commentary on the popular news Web site NRG, he wrote that the political science and sociology departments have become "hotbeds for anti-Israel indoctrination" and that those with right-wing views were being excluded from those departments.