750 Academics Warn Bennett of 'Crisis of Confidence'

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Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who also serves as chairman of the Council for Higher Education, in January 2016.
Bennett, who is also chairman of the CHE. "If nobody in the government cares whether higher education deteriorates, the damage will be done," said Prof. Feitelson.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky

Hundreds of faculty members and doctoral students at Israeli colleges and universities have signed a petition protesting steps recently taken by Education Minister Naftali Bennett in the Council for Higher Education, which he chairs. These include the ousting of CHE vice chairwoman Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron and the appointment of Rivka Wadmany Shauman in her place – described by the academics as “aggressive behavior [that] is not appropriate, on either the public or the personal levels."

In the manifesto the signatories are demanding that Bennett appoint an entirely new council and establish a public committee that will set the minimum requirements for its members.

As of Tuesday, some 750 academics had signed the petition, over the course of two days; it will be sent to Bennett, head of Habayit Hayehudi, when about 1,000 signatures have been collected.

“Your behavior regarding Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron and the appointment of a replacement who does not meet the minimum requirements for the position, has caused us to lose confidence in the present CHE, and in you in particular, as chairman of the CHE,” the academics have written Bennett, in their statement.

The protesters are specifically demanding the appointment of a public panel – headed by the president of the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities, or a former Supreme Court justice – which will determine criteria for membership in the CHE and for appointment of vice chairman. “Only such a step will prevent a profound crisis of confidence between the academic faculty and the CHE, and a mortal blow to the higher education system for which you will be responsible,” the petition reads.

According to one of the initiators of the protest, Prof. David Levi Faur of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, this is the first in a series of steps the academics are prepared to take, including convening independent gatherings of faculty members and meetings of university senates to discuss the subject.

Said Prof. Eilon Vaadia of the Hebrew University, who is also behind the petition: “I feel that a deed has been done here that is not political-democratic in nature, but is rather a coerced imposition of the minister’s opinion. The politicians cannot tell us how to think. The academic world has always been open. A few years ago they started to impose restrictions on our thoughts and our research, and we can’t allow that to continue.”

Prof. Eran Feitelson, also of the Hebrew University, added that, “the strongest statement that can be made is that the higher education community no longer has confidence in the person who heads the CHE. Bennett presumes to be a national leader – but a national leader can’t allow those in the realm for which he is responsible to express a lack of confidence in him. This is a resounding failure for an education minister.”

Said Feitelson: “I hope that Bennett has at least an iota of public sensitivity and will hear what we’re saying. If nobody in the government cares whether higher education deteriorates, then the damage will be done. I hope that there’s someone there to whom the country is important. The country is important to Bennett, too.”

The response of the CHE: “We welcome this important and pluralistic discussion. Of course, the decisions were made democratically, according to all regulations and with the support of the heads of the country's academic institutions.”

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