Time to Promote the Humanities

by David Newman

The month-long Board of Governors season got underway this week as the philanthropic supporters of Israel’s universities arrived to participate in a program of lectures, cultural events, openings of new buildings and the awarding of honorary doctorates.

The competition between universities, and a host of other Israeli institutions – such as hospitals, yeshivot, welfare organizations and even political movements – has become increasingly intense in recent years. Economic recession, Madoff, and uncertainty about the future of the global money markets have reduced the total amount of philanthropy. The older generation of donors, for whom giving to Jewish and Israeli causes was a no-brainer, has been dying off, and it is much more difficult to find a new, younger, generation of potential donors who demonstrate the same commitment to the causes which were supported by their parents.

In recent years, spurred on by extremist right-wing groups, members of the Boards of Governors have also become increasingly involved in the political debate surrounding Israeli universities and their academic staff. Many of them have blindly supported the false assertions of well-oiled and funded groups, such as Im Tirtzu, NGO Monitor, IsraCampus and Academic Monitor, that the universities have become hotbeds of “anti-Zionism” without ever bothering to check the facts on the ground.

The right-wing protagonists would have us believe that basic universal values such as freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and academic freedom are not compatible with being an upright and law-abiding citizen of the state, and they have partially succeeded in selling these dangerous ideas to many of the well meaning, but largely ill informed, supporters of Israel from abroad. Some of them have even fallen into the trap of reassessing their donations and, as such, have inadvertently caused damage to one of the great Israeli miracles of the past 60 years – the development of seven institutes of higher education (Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University, Haifa University, Bar Ilan University, the Technion and the Weizmann Institute), all of which have achieved international status for their research and their teaching and which have, during the past decade, produced Nobel prize winners who are second to none in the world.

There are many challenges facing Israel’s universities as they attempt to identify the research frontiers facing the world during the next two to three decades. All too often this is translated into the important fields of health sciences and medicine, or the recent “in” topics such as nanotechnology and cognitive sciences. Each university has its own unique and specific areas of relative advantage, and my own university, Ben-Gurion, is without doubt one of the world leaders in the study of desertification and the use of water in arid environments – research which has global, and not just local, implications as it helps to eradicate poverty and starvation in many critical regions of the world, not least in Africa and Asia.

Unfortunately, the world of the social sciences and the humanities has been largely forgotten and discarded by most university donors. The Board of Governors program may include annual lectures on contemporary political issues (such as the so-called “Arab spring”) or a new insight into European history and the Holocaust, because these are “sexy” topics of great interest for our visitors, and the auditoriums are usually full. But these same topics are nowhere to be found in the priority list of the universities when it comes to soliciting donations and future endowments.

Come listen to a fascinating lecture by Deborah Lipstadt or Baroness Ruth Deech or Sir Martin Gilbert about European and Jewish history, and then come speak to us about giving money to the life sciences or nanotechnology laboratory. The decision makers in the universities have partially forgotten that the original role of the university was to contribute to the morality, philosophy and culture of the society, through a deeper understanding of history, ethics, theology, literature and basic humanistic values, and that these too require resources (albeit of a smaller scale) if they are to continue to flourish.

The crisis of the humanities, which was all too apparent during the past decade, has finally been recognized by the Council of Higher Education (the MALAG) which is beginning to redirect resources to this field. In financial terms, the liberal arts and the humanities will not always stand up to the stringent measures of economic feasibility. They require an input of resources which will not necessarily show a profit margin at the end of the day. Our friends and supporters from the Diaspora should understand how important it is to ensure that Israel retains its place as one of the countries in the world where books and literature and ideas are reinvigorated and given a new breath of life, in the very best of Jewish traditions.

So if you are looking for an alternative investment opportunity in Israel’s future, here is a short list:

  • We require investment in libraries so that our best philosophers and historians do not leave Israel for universities in Western Europe and North America, arguing that the country no longer has the necessary humanities research “laboratories” which will enable them to undertake their research here in Israel.
  • We need investment in the teaching of languages, which has fallen to an all-time low in Israel, so that our future research students can acquire the necessary skills to engage with texts which are written in languages other than Hebrew or English.
  • We need investment in the consolidation and expansion of Jewish Studies, through which the Jewish experience can be analyzed from a diversity of perspectives and understandings. In recent years, student numbers have fallen due to the lack of programs, while the center for research and originality in Jewish Studies has shifted its locus from Israel to North America.
  • Hebrew culture and literature, which is so unique and special to this country, require strengthening so that the amazing achievements of the past 150 years focusing on the renaissance of Hebrew as a modern, live, spoken language do not disappear in a flood of globalization.
  • We need investment in the development of centers for human rights in a country where these rights are being challenged; in the study of minorities and ethnic groups in a country of new migrant groups; in centers of Middle East studies in order to better understand our neighbors to the east and their turbulent politics; in European studies to better understand our neighbors to the west; in programs of social intervention and training in a country where the basic levels of welfare and poverty, social inequalities, lack of access to opportunities, is far greater than it was in the past.
  • Projects which strengthen our democracy and enable critical studies of Israeli society, its government and its public institutions, within the context of a bitter conflict between Israel and her neighbors, need to be encouraged and supported. Strong academic programs in conflict resolution, peace studies, the rule of law and the ability to “dialogue” with the other, should be at the forefront of Israeli academic endeavors.

The list of potential projects which do not simply focus on technology and laboratories is endless.

Without such centers of activity, the country’s universities are on their way to becoming little more than top quality institutes of technology and medicine, but where the heart of the society, its values, ethics, philosophies and debates, have been relegated to the margins. We, the community of scholars in the field of humanities and social sciences, in all of Israel’s universities, invite your interest so that you, too, can contribute to the future of the Israeli soul.

David Newman is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.