Freedom of expression belongs to professors and students alike
According to a recent report in Ha'aretz, students at Tel Aviv University are complaining bitterly about leftist professors. The students are said to be hurt by the professors' positions, "but are afraid to express contrary views, lest this harm their grades."
So wrote Prof. Nira Hativa, head of the university's center for advancement of teaching. She added that in many end-of-year feedback forms, students complained about professors who "attack the state of Israel, the IDF, the Zionist movement and even worse than that."
She also added that the complaints allege that "Leftist professors, as distinct from rightist ones, feel absolutely free to express their political views, even when there is no relevance whatsoever to the subject they teach."
The head of the university's student union tells of similar student complaints, and the talkbacks to this news item - whatever their credibility - also told about students who are afraid to argue with such professors.
THIS NEWS item did not surprise me. A small group of anti-Zionist, anti-Israel faculty members has turned Tel Aviv University into a podium from which to broadcast their political propaganda.
Two notable instances: a group of 30 professors signed a pro-Iranian petition last year warning against Israeli and American designs and "adventurism" against the Islamic Republic, without even mentioning its president's threat to wipe Israel off the map and his Holocaust-denying outbursts.
The second example was a conference held by the Tel Aviv Law School in which the subject was the alleged mistreatment of "political prisoners" (i.e. convicted Palestinian terrorists) that invited, as guest speaker, a released prisoner sentenced to 27 years in jail for throwing a bomb into a Jewish civilian bus.
This is not academic freedom. This is using academic podiums to deliver Israel-bashing propaganda.
When I taught at Columbia University, I could see how TAU guest professors would stoke the flames of anti-Israel rhetoric; one of them insisted that the university show the film Jenin, Jenin, which charges Israel with perpetrating a famously imaginary massacre.
The usual defense of these TAU excesses is that all professors are entitled to academic freedom. This is inherently true in principle. Academic freedom, a special niche of the freedom of speech principle enshrined in Israeli law, should incorporate marginal and iconoclastic views. This is especially true in a society like Israel which suffers from a constant state of emergency and stress.
But academic freedom, like all human rights, is not unlimited. Austrian and German courts rightly decided that Holocaust denial is not protected speech; Jean Paul Sartre went further, believing that all anti-Semitic expressions are unprotected by the right to freedom of speech.
A call to boycott Israel, such as was made by a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University's political science department, is certainly unprotected, in a similar way to the Supreme Court's ruling that a party which seeks the destruction of Israel cannot run in the Knesset elections.
But there is one further point: academics cannot seek shelter behind their much-touted freedom, while denying the students' right to express their own opinions. If what is alleged in Ha'aretz is true, then these TAU professors are violating the law.
Article 5 of the Student's Rights Law states this explicitly: "Every student has the freedom to express his views and opinions as to the contents of the syllabus and the values incorporated therein."
In other words, the students, too, have a measure of academic freedom. If the allegations made by the students - probably mainly in TAU's social sciences departments - are true, the university is violating the students' lawful rights.
The writer is a professor of law at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a former education minister and Knesset member, as well as the recipient of the 2006 Israel Prize in Law.