The Shin Bet's academic freedom
A civil society striving for economic and intellectual growth must be weaned from its worship of those in uniform, whose role in benefiting or damaging the state remains controversial.
On the face of it, we are talking about a heated exchange between the rector of Jerusalem's Hebrew University and the head of the Shin Bet security service, but in fact the matter concerns Israeli society's order of priorities. Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin complained last week about the "haughty and disparaging" attitude displayed toward his organization by Hebrew University rector Haim Rabinowitz, after the university decided not to hold a special study program - awarding a humanities degree to Shin Bet members in 16 months - by virtue of their "work toward foiling terror attacks at the university," as Diskin put it.
The Shin Bet head felt that his foilers were entitled to an academic reduction; Rabinowitz ruled that Shin Bet operatives are subject to the same laws as any other student. He should be praised for that ruling, which in effect confirms the Hebrew University's unique position - it no longer provides special programs for members of the security forces. Perhaps that is one of the reasons it is the only Israeli university ranked among the world's 100 leading universities.
The twisted thought process according to which members of the security forces have the right to special academic conditions has become deeply entrenched in the Israeli academic world. Today there is hardly a university that does not offer special courses for officers, pilots and secret agents. As such, all it takes for students of the National Security College to receive a master's degree in political science from Haifa University is two classes a week for one semester. Pilots receive a bachelor's degree at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev after one year's study, while Shin Bet operatives receive a B.A. from Bar-Ilan University after a mere 16 months.
Bar-Ilan deserves the title of the most militaristic university of them all - it offers a plethora of programs for the security forces only: There is the Jericho program for the Shin Bet and a whole host of programs for officers in the Israel Defense Forces, officers about to enter the IDF and officers who have already reached the rank of battalion commander. The entire nation is an army and Bar-Ilan is all security. The difference between this reality and outstanding academia is immense, whereas the difference between such practice and receiving a fictitious degree from the University of Latvia is minute.
No one would dare suggest that the cleaning staff who sweep out the lecture halls receive special academic conditions - even though their work, too, is essential. The head of the Shin Bet is quick to mention the foiling of terrorist attacks as supporting evidence for getting an academic degree. What is the connection? A proposal is currently circulating in the Knesset for legislation that would offer academic points in return for reserve duty. Why academia, Rabinowitz asks, proposing instead that they get points with El Al or the Co-op supermarket chain.
This is an old curse that has widely affected society: The idea that members of the security forces are entitled to more - not just exaggerated and scandalous pay, as was recently revealed in TheMarker, not just discounts for those in uniform at the steak houses, but also at the ivory towers. They don't deserve special treatment; Israel's academia has no need for such distortions.
It is good for those dealing with national security to study. True, sometimes they do so merely with the goal of boosting their salaries and pensions, and sometimes the university serves merely as a safe haven until tempers have cooled - as is the case with police superintendent Uri Bar-Lev - or as a change of atmosphere and a place to rest. Whatever the motive, we must welcome this thirst for knowledge.
Perhaps at university these security specialists will learn a few important lessons in political science, civics, history and human rights, about the division of powers and the rule of law. They will rub shoulders with an environment that is generally very foreign to them: the intellectual milieu. They will read and write, and - who knows - maybe they will also think and ask questions. The experience will surely broaden their horizons, which sometimes resemble the narrow barracks in which they serve.
But the universities must not capitulate to any conditions. Their studies must be exactly the same as those of every other student - no separate groups with special conditions and most of all no shortened programs. The universities must not allow themselves to be conscripted into safeguarding Israel's security. They must not bow down to this idol. It contradicts their academic and intellectual existence. Those who support an academic boycott of Israel often argue that Israel's universities serve the occupation and its army. There is something to this.
"An academic education is an academic education is an academic education," Rabinowitz says. He admits that it is possible to cram in a three-year program into one year, but believes that academic studies are not merely a race toward a degree or fulfilling a quota of hours. In the tortuous schedule dictated by the Shin Bet, it is impossible to teach in a proper fashion, Rabinowitz says. Diskin, who holds a B.A. from Bar-Ilan and an M.A. from Haifa University, calls this attitude "haughty and disparaging." What we are talking about, therefore, is a basic misunderstanding of the university's role.
But of course the subject is much broader. A civil society striving for economic and intellectual growth must be weaned from its worship of those in uniform, whose role in benefiting or damaging the state remains controversial. Just as the time is long gone when pictures of IDF generals hung on the walls of garages and restaurants, now the time has come to say to those in uniform: Your contribution is no more important than that of other members of the population. Welcome to the university, just like anyone else.