An unseemly public brouhaha

This spat between a university funder and an employee of the same university gives both parties much to reflect upon


The now very public slanging match involving Michael Gross and David Newman, reported in the JC last month, represents, for me, a multiple sadness.

On November 16, Newman, the British-born professor of political geography at Israel’s Ben-Gurion university (BGU), appeared on the notorious Channel Four Dispatches pseudo-documentary that purported to examine the working and impact of “Britain’s Israel Lobby.”

This exposé was forced, flawed and boring. It told me nothing I did not already know. By his own admission its presenter, Peter Oborne, revealed not a single skeleton in a single cupboard. He was forced to admit that although there were indeed “conspiracy theories” surrounding the influence of pro-Israel lobbies, such theories “have no basis in fact.”

Worse still (from Mr Oborne’s point of view), his painstaking examination of political donations made by certain British Jews revealed that such gifts were “entirely legal”.

Academic freedom does not give an academic licence to say what he or she pleases

But, somewhat craftily, Mr Oborne included in his pseudo-documentary interviews with British Jews — or, rather, selected snippets from interviews with British Jews — among whom was Professor Newman, who was shown commenting on the work of the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre”— Bicom.

Newman appeared to declare that groups such as Bicom “tend to close down” debate on Israeli policies vis-à-vis Judea and Samaria. This assertion struck me as silly, and I emailed Newman to tell him so. I pointed out that, as a matter of indisputable fact, such debate has not been closed down and that, in any case, the closing down of such debate has never been part of Bicom’s purpose.

I added that, while I respected his right to freedom of academic expression, in my opinion his appearance on the programme had been ill-judged, and had simply served to bolster conspiracy theories about the power of the Jews in the UK. I wondered, however, whether he had bothered to insist on any editorial control over what was broadcast in his name. “If not,” I wrote, “you have certainly learned a harsh lesson.”

This proved to be an understatement. Unknown to me, the British-born philanthropist Michael Gross, a governor of BGU, had been so incensed at Newman’s contribution to the Channel Four programme that he had sent him several emails, in one of which, alluding to Newman’s “disgusting contribution” to the programme, he had promised to “use whatever influence I have at BGU to have you thrown out… I hope you perish,” while in another he had proffered the view that “the sooner you are removed from BGU and the face of the earth, the better.”

At this point, I must declare an interest. It is a matter of public knowledge that I am privileged to hold, at the University of Buckingham, a professorial appointment endowed by Mr Gross. It is from this endowment that part of my salary is paid. But I must add at once that Mr Gross has never sought to influence either my academic work or my extra-mural media activities. On a great number of issues affecting world Jewry, he and I happen to agree. On some others we do not. But we respect each other’s views, and independence.

The language used by Mr Gross is not the language I would have used. At the same time, Professor Newman’s decision to appear on Peter Oborne’s pseudo-documentary — apparently without any editorial control — is not the decision I would have made.

Professor Newman has now volunteered the frank admission (for which he deserves credit) that it was “a major mistake” to have appeared on the programme. So it was. Academic freedom is a precious commodity. But it doesn’t give an academic the licence to say what he or she pleases. There is, for example, such a thing as bringing one’s university into disrepute, and during an academic career now in its 48th year it has been my sad duty to have had to deal with a number of such cases, involving academics (some very senior) who felt they could, with impunity, bite the hand that fed them.

The small Israeli university system punches well above its weight. It is world-class. It depends — much more so than the British system — on raising private donations, an activity in which Mr Gross excels. Let’s hope that passions subside and that the lessons stemming from the recent discord at BGU have been learnt by everyone involved.

    Last updated: 3:57pm, March 25 2010

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