Shared Values: Checks, Balances, And Tenure

Shared Values: Checks, Balances, And Tenure


Leonard Zwelling

In his op-ed in The New York Times on February 13, Thomas L. Friedman notes that though America has been a staunch supporter of Israel since 1948, this alliance does not depend upon common interests. As Friedman notes, “Israel has stayed neutral between Ukraine and Russia, it is indifferent to human rights abuses in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and Israeli businesses sometimes sell defense technologies to China that are very worrying to the Pentagon.” We don’t always share policy initiatives. But, “we believe Israel shares our values.”

Now, we are not so sure.

If Prime Minister Netanyahu and his right-wing, nationalist coalition in the Knesset get their way and eliminate the independence of the Supreme Court, take over the appointment of its justices, and are able to override the Court’s decisions with a one-vote majority in the legislature, Israel will no longer share the principal values of American democracy—the separation of powers and checks and balances among the branches of government.

Friedman notes that President Biden has supported these values in a 46-word email to Friedman from the President. It is absolutely essential to a real democracy that its executive leadership share power with the legislature and the judiciary. In Israel, where the executive power resides in the leader of the legislature, the only check to the prime minister’s power is the Supreme Court. If the legislature and its leader, the prime minister, can appoint the members of the Court and overturn its decisions with a single-vote majority, checks and balances are gone in Israel. So is democracy. That is the danger of the new government and why protests against it are so vehement. The very future of the Israeli experiment in democracy is at risk, just as the future of the American democracy was at risk on January 6, 2021 when the executive branch instigated a riot on Capitol Hill to try to prevent the legislature from doing its constitutional duty.

Democracy is fragile. Without a system of checks and balances it will sputter and falter. That is what Mr. Netanyahu is threatening in Israel and what Mr. Trump threatened in the United States.

There are similar forces at work in the University of Texas System where the leadership of the Texas State legislature and the Governor want to alter the manner in which the university system operates. Specifically, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Governor Abbott want to eliminate the consideration of diversity, equity, and inclusion criteria in the hiring of faculty and staff at the universities of the UT System and Patrick wants to do away with tenure so that he can fire any faculty member teaching critical race theory or, for that matter, anything else he doesn’t like.

Just like a judiciary in a democracy, the faculty of an academic institution must be independent of political forces at the state level. Teachers need to be free to teach ideas, even ones that offend some people, and not lose their jobs. And don’t think MD Anderson is immune just because it doesn’t teach humanities. Consider what an MD Anderson faculty member can do when his or her patient is pregnant and needs potentially genotoxic cancer therapies or even abdominal radiotherapy. And what will the lack of tenure mean when the President of MD Anderson uses professionalism like a scalpel to excise those he does not favor? Even as the majority of the MD Anderson faculty, especially the clinical faculty, are not tenured, tenure is an important principle worthy of defense against the forces in Austin seeking to end it. It is a long-term (or longish) commitment to a productive faculty member to take scientific risks, seek new treatments that may take years to develop and still fail, and to teach what he or she views as the truth.

Will President Pisters fight to maintain the term tenure system? What will he do about his pride and joy the DEI programs in hiring that the governor hates? Both are under attack by the chief executive and head of the Texas State Senate. Will the independence of the university system be maintained in Texas? Will an independent judiciary be maintained in Israel? Why are the bullies taking over bastions of former democratic balance?

Answer: because they can. These trends away from democracy and independent thinking must be resisted at all costs. Israel will not be the Israel we know and love if Netanyahu gets his way. MD Anderson will not be the MD Anderson we know and love if the Governor and Lieutenant Governor get their way.

In Israel the people are protesting Netanyahu’s proposals. Are the faculty of MD Anderson prepared to do the same if tenure is revoked? The faculty ought to be.

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