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August 26, 2009

Donors Protest Israeli Professor’s Op-ed

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community/article/donors_protest_israeli_professors_op-ed_20090826

Neve Gordon, the Ben-Gurion University political science professor whose Aug. 20 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times titled “Boycott Israel” described Israel as an “apartheid state,” has drawn protests and threats of cutting off funding for the school by some U.S. donors.

“The whole thing could have serious repercussions,” said Philip Gomperts, Southwestern regional director for American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, a U.S. fundraising organization for the university.

Gordon’s op-ed prompted multiple calls of protest to the school’s Los Angeles-based Southwestern regional office, which raises about $6.5 million annually.

Fears donors would turn on the school grew after Haaretz reported that Los Angeles Jews were considering a boycott of the university, described in a letter Israel’s Los Angeles-based Consul General Jacob Dayan sent to Ben-Gurion President Rivka Carmi. Dayan wrote that donors who contacted him were “unanimous in threatening to withhold donations.”

In his column, Gordon, a tenured professor at Ben-Gurion, wrote that the “most accurate way to describe Israel today is as an apartheid state…. the only way to counter the apartheid trend in Israel is through massive international pressure…. I consequently have decided to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that was launched by Palestinian activists in July 2005 and has since garnered widespread support around the globe.”

As in the United States, in Israel tenured professors are protected with regard to free speech, and Gordon was unrepentant when asked about the controversy he had sparked.

“I do not understand the logic of those who want to boycott BGU,” Gordon said in an interview with The Journal. “‘We hate Neve Gordon because he calls for a boycott, so we’re going to boycott.’ What, exactly, is the rationale?” he said.

Ben-Gurion’s U.S. fundraisers say Gordon has been a thorn in their side for years. Doron Krakow, the agency’s national executive vice president said he heard from “a fair number of donors who find the sentiment of Dr. Gordon appalling.”

Israel’s Education Minister Gideon Saar called Gordon’s column “appalling and condemnable,” and its Religious Affairs Minister Yaacov Margi called for Gordon’s suspension from the university, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Ben-Gurion President Carmi also condemned Gordon’s comments last week, saying in a statement released on Aug. 21 that the university strongly disassociates itself from “Gordon’s destructive views that abuse the freedom of speech prevailing in Israel and at BGU.

“We are shocked and outraged by his remarks, which are both irresponsible and morally reprehensible,” she said. “Academics who entertain such resentment toward their country are welcome to consider another professional and personal home.”

But the Association for Civil Rights in Israel took issue with Carmi’s denouncement, saying the university is curbing academic free speech by condemning Gordon’s op-ed.

Gordon said his piece did not call for an outright boycott of Israel.

“I call for a gradual boycott sensitive to context and circumstances, which would begin with boycotting companies located in the occupied territories, including the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel,” he said.

Los Angeles Times acting letters editor Sara Lessley said Gordon’s column, which appeared on a Thursday, generated roughly 75 letters immediately following its publication, with sentiments almost evenly split between support and opposition.

Last Sunday and Monday, however, The Times was inundated with hundreds of letters from an international campaign in support of Gordon. “The wording is much the same. They say they applaud the L.A. Times for its courage,” Lessley said.

Murray Fromson, an L.A.-based donor, said he isn’t planning to withhold his contributions because of Gordon, but he is concerned that others might.

“People will think twice about giving to Ben-Gurion because of Neve Gordon,” said Fromson, whose wife, Dodi, serves on the American Associates’ national board.

Carol Saal, the group’s board president, said the national organization has received many e-mails and phone calls. “Of course the messages are that they’re upset,” she said. “They’re afraid this is going to hurt the university.”

But the impact on the school remains to be seen: Dayan told The Journal that few of the calls he received were from major donors, and Gomperts said that he has heard from only one or two small local donors.

However, the school’s national marketing and communications director, Ronni Strongin, said she had heard from one major donor who said, “Fire the guy or I’m not giving BGU any more money.”

Strongin said that withholding money could result in punishing all of the university’s students, faculty and staff.

“If they withhold money, they are then fulfilling Dr. Gordon’s wishes,” she said.

Gordon argues that withholding funds from the school in hope of ousting him sets a dangerous precedent.

“If donors want to stop providing the financial support to the university because of one professor, they do not understand the significance of academic freedom. Do they want the university to have a single voice?”

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