Prof. Haim Cohen
'I thought the road to Ariel would be full of army troops, and I'd be stopped at six checkpoints,' said chemistry Prof. Haim Cohen. Photo by Nir Keidar
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Daniel Bar On
Criminologist Mally Shechory-Bitton has been teaching at the college since 1997. Photo by Daniel Bar On
Daniel Bar On
Yossi Goldstein said he sees no contradiction between having leftist views and working at Ariel. Photo by Daniel Bar On

Several academics who teach at the Ariel University Center in the West Bank have distinctly leftist views. But they see no contradiction between their work place and their political positions, and some were even pleasantly surprised when they discovered what it was like.

"I thought the road to Ariel would be full of army troops, and I'd be stopped at six checkpoints," said chemistry Prof. Haim Cohen, who worked in the Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona for 36 years and previously lectured at Ben-Gurion University. "I thought all the students and faculty members would be wearing skullcaps and [ritual] fringes and their eyes would burn with messianic fervor."

Cohen, who always voted "between Meretz and Labor," received an offer to teach at the college in Ariel eight years ago, when he was about to retire. To his surprise, most of the faculty are of Russian origin, and chose to live in the settlement of Ariel due to the lower cost of living.

"There are a few more skullcap-wearing people here, but no messianism," he said. "I was also surprised by the increase in the number Arab students. When a student from Kafr Qasem comes to Ben-Gurion University, he has difficulty renting an apartment in Be'er Sheva. Here, he can take the bus and sleep at home."

"I think the conflict's solution is two states for two peoples, but three large settlement blocs will remain - Gush Etzion, Ma'aleh Adumim and Ariel," he added. "I'm very optimistic."

Part of the Israeli left sees the recent decision to upgrade Ariel University Center to a full university as a move that bolsters the occupation. Some 1,000 academics, including 18 Israel Prize laureates, signed a petition against establishing a university in the territories, warning that it would undermine international academic cooperation and harm the existing universities. "The identification of Israeli academia as a whole with the settlement policy will put it in danger," they wrote.

"The university in Ariel strengthens the occupation," agreed MK Dov Khenin (Hadash ).

But a number of leftist academics who have chosen to teach at Ariel disagree. Prof. Yossi Goldstein, for example, said he sees no contradiction between having leftist views and working at Ariel, despite his initial misgivings.

An expert on Zionist history and Israel, Goldstein said his voting ranges from Meretz to "more radical" parties. Having written biographies of prime ministers Levi Eshkol and Yitzhak Rabin, he is very familiar with the history of West Bank settlement. But this hasn't stopped him from teaching at Ariel University Center for the past four years.

"It wasn't a simple decision, but I decided to try it for one year, to see if my fears that it's a rightist bastion were corroborated," he said.

Goldstein advises 13 students on their master's theses, "all of them from the hills around here. They pick subjects like the beginning of Gush Emunim [the settlement movement] or the [now-defunct] National Religious Party's approach to security in the state's early days. These subjects correspond to the stereotypes of Ariel's students," he said.

But another group consists of Arab students "writing papers about the Nakba" - literally, "catastrophe," the Arabic term for Israel's creation.

"They all know my political views," he said. "I don't hide it in any way. I even joke with them about politics and religion."

"The term occupation is correct" as applied to Ariel, he said. "We're in occupied territory ... But I'm in an academic institution."

"All Israeli universities were established for political reasons," he added.

"I don't deny the politicians who founded Ariel wanted to divide the West Bank in two and quash the chances of creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank," Goldstein said. "That's not my responsibility ... My conscience tells me I'm a tenured history professor here. If it means my children and grandchildren can live in peace, I'd be ready to return every bit of land."

Goldstein sees no contradiction between his work and his political positions. He even looked into buying an apartment in Ariel for investment purposes, but the plan didn't work out.

"My view is simple: Israel must stay strong until peace agreements are signed," he said. "I don't think an academic institution can prevent peace."

Criminologist Mally Shechory-Bitton has been teaching at the college since 1997, as well as at Ben-Gurion University. She supports "territorial compromise. I'm not willing to die for any land."

But she sees no connection between establishing the university in Ariel and territorial compromise.

"Ariel College was built to strengthen Ariel. That doesn't interest me," she said. "The state decided to settle people there. They didn't come here out of the blue."