Academic politics, goes the famous quip, are so vicious because the stakes are so small. For further proof, consider the recent developments at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Poetics and Comparative Literature, where a recent scandal led to the resignation of the department chair and a much publicized flurry of accusations, insinuations, and name-calling.
The story begins, as such stories often do, with an academic conference, this one dedicated to political blogging. Among the invited panelists was Benny Ziffer, the editor of Ha’aretz’s literary section and a popular and provocative blogger on the newspaper’s website. Last year, when Yitzhak Laor, a noted Israeli poet, was accused by a female acquaintance of rape, Ziffer took to the blogosphere, writing strongly in support of Laor and questioning his accuser’s motives.
None of this, of course, has anything to do with the panel to which he was invited, but in Israel, as well as in academia in general, the political and the personal are conjoined. Laor’s accuser, an artist named Eshkar Eldan Cohen, contacted Dr. Orly Lubin, the Comp Lit department chair, and demanded that Ziffer be uninvited. Lubin, a thoughtful scholar whom I’d had the pleasure to briefly meet while myself an undergraduate at TAU, wrote Eldan Cohen a long letter, explaining that uninviting Ziffer is tantamount to censorship and that if Eldan Cohen was so inclined, she, too, would be invited to the panel where she could freely confront Ziffer.
None of this sufficed to Eldan Cohen, who proceeded to lobby the family of the late professor in whose honor the conference is held annually. Realizing that the panel was growing needlessly controversial and counterproductive, Lubin announced last Friday that she was canceling it altogether. That, too, apparently, wasn’t enough: A few days after the panel had already been cancelled, Eldan Cohen took to her blog and demanded, once again, in an open letter to the university’s governing body, that Ziffer’s invitation be rescinded.
This, apparently, was all Lubin could take. She resigned. She couldn’t accept, she told Ha’aretz, that the gender studies program, which falls under the purview of her department, would be tainted by accusations of not being sufficiently committed to preventing violence against women. Reached for comment Tel Aviv University said it knew nothing of Lubin’s resignation. This is probably not where the story ends.