Lately Sapir College, where I have taught since 2006, has come under attack by certain circles as being "anti-Israeli", as producing "anti-Israeli" materials and films, and as employing faculty who are "left extremists".
Im Tirzu - a right wing organization that has taken it upon itself to decide what should or should not be taught in Israeli colleges and universities (according to them, if it's Zionist it should be taught, if it looks critically at Israeli society and history it should be not) - is examing course syllabi to check their "Zionist kashrut" and lodging complaints when they decide that a syllabus is 'anti-Israeli'. They recently lodged a complaint against one of the lecturers for having a syllabus that contains - to their mind - too many 'anti-Zionist' readings.
The latest round of criticism from the right, which seems to be afraid of any dissension lodged against Israeli governmental decisions and actions, was raised during the annual film festival organized by the Dept. of Cinema Communication at the college and held at the Cinemateque in Sderot (http://www.sderot-cin.org.il/info/about/about-003.htm)
This year's festival was kicked off with the film "Testimony" (Shlomi Elkabetz - director) in which 24 Israeli actors present monologues - personal stories that no (Jewish-Israelis ) want to hear - of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories. The Minister of Culture, Limor Livnat, who was invited to give opening remarks at the film festival, walked out in anger before the film was screened, expressing her criticism of its "one-sideness", before she saw it...
In response to the massive criticism that was received by the college about the film, Simon Tamir, the head of Sapir's public relations, stated: "...there's a debate and the film and that is fine, but to present us as a college that produces anti-Israeli material is a lie...Sapir College advocates absolute freedom of expression, both left and right. There is freedom of opinion here..."
In February of this year, I was one of the main organizers of a 3 day conference held at Sapir entitled "Gaza-Sderot: Moving from Crisis to Sustainability" (http://www.gazasderot.org/). This conference brought together over 300 people from academia and civil society - from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza (14 Gazans received permits to attend this conference - an unheard number of permits, given the ongoing near total blockade/siege of the Gaza Strip), and internationals. We looked at the crises facing our region, in the realms of community development, health, environment, employment, economics etc.
Before the conference began, we, the organizers (and the college), were attacked for holding such an 'anti-Israeli' event, (I have sadly come to realize that for many, opening up dialogue, or even talking about opening up dialogue with Palestinians, is anti-patriotic). The college stood firm and came out in full support for the conference, for freedom of expression, for academic freedom.
Sapir College, like all other academic universities in Israel, has its better points and its areas where it can be improved. But when it comes to allowing academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of opinion, it is a beautiful light in a darkening Israeli society.
At our college, located in the Negev, just a few kilometres from the Gaza Strip, the left and the right are free to express their opinions, to disagree, to publicly try to sway the other. At times our disagreements are far from quiet, but we are not afraid of making our voices heard. This makes our pastoral college, located in the 'periphery', a true Israeli treausre.
This little light of ours, we're going to let it shine...