Israeli Universities Group Chief Resigns Over 'Political Takeover' of Academia

'In recent weeks, under the scepter of the higher education commissar, Minister Zeev Elkin, we are witnessing attempts to paralyze the gatekeepers entrusted with the future of science in Israel,' Prof. Ron Robin writes

Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Or Kashti
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Prof. Ron Rubin in front of Haifa University, September 12, 2018.
Prof. Ron Rubin in front of Haifa University, September 12, 2018.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Or Kashti

The chairman of Israel’s Association of University Heads, Prof. Ron Robin, announced on Tuesday he would resign from his position, citing attempts by the government to “terrorize, weaken, censor and let political interests dictate the research agenda,” calling these “a clear, immediate danger to the State of Israel and to our future.”

Robin, who is the president of the University of Haifa, announced his planned resignation in a letter to staff and students at the institution. In it he said this was due to a series of decisions made by the recently-appointed Higher Education Minister Zeev Elkin, of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud.

LISTEN: Protests, pandemics and Netanyahu's day of reckoningCredit: Haaretz

The latest infraction, the letter said, was the decision not to extend the tenure of the acting director general of the Council for Higher Education, Michal Neumann, whose term expires this week. Neumann was appointed about six months ago, after the previous director general, Matanyahu Englman, was appointed state comptroller.

She had held various positions on the council for over two decades, and is considered a respected figure in the field of higher education. Robin’s letter says Elkin’s decision is intended to weaken the independence of the council and make it more susceptible to political considerations. A source in higher education said that Elkin gave no reason for his decision not to extend Neumann’s tenure, adding that Elkin seems to view Neumann’s experience as a drawback.

Council members called on Elkin to extend Neumann's appointment, and a senior figure in the higher education system said that universities are preparing to oppose all steps Elkin takes. Robin’s resignation is a warning for anyone affiliated with universities and colleges of “an attempt to take over the higher education system, and to direct it accordingly towards the wills of the regime – specifically its budgets," the figure added. "This is a battle for the independence of academia in Israel.”

The council is “the holy of holies, whose role is to serve as the crucial barrier between politics and science,” Robin said in his letter. “In recent weeks, under the scepter of the higher education commissar, Minister Zeev Elkin, we are witnessing attempts to paralyze the gatekeepers entrusted with the future of science in Israel.”

The letter continues, “We are in an unprecedented, very dark time. Gatekeepers have become targets, and systems dedicated to the values of freedom of expression and freedom of thought are being attacked again and again. The culture, the judiciary, the media and higher education are under a dangerous attack, threatening the very existence of democracy in Israel.”

In his letter, Robin warned against sinking into the “quicksand that would send us back to eras when people believed the Earth was flat and the sun orbits it. In Turkey, as in other places where there have been attempts to wipe out democracy, among the first to be singled out by the regime were institutes of higher education. The State of Israel is walking with eyes wide shut into exactly these dark places.”

Robin explained that his resignation is an act of protest against what he called “fearless destruction, driven by narrow political interests, which we will soon encounter.” He added: “I hope that by doing so, I will ignite the fire of rebellion among all academic staff in Israel, the students, and any person in Israel who holds dear the future of democracy, science, research and freedom.”

Elkin’s ministry did not exist until the most recent government was formed in May. 

Higher education officials have recently clashed with Elkin – whose ministry did not exist until the government was formed in May – over what they consider to be his affronts to academic freedom. A central theme in these clashes is Elkin's efforts to cancel final exams due to the coronavirus outbreak. Heads of colleges and universities said that the minister prevented a discussion by the Council for Higher Education on the tests that could take place.

University heads have also butted heads with Elkin for his intention to appoint a representative from Ariel University in the West Bank to the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education, claiming Elkin’s candidate is underqualified and his nomination is based on narrow political interests.

Rubin's resignation occurred days after Tel Aviv University President Ariel Porat wrote an open letter criticizing Elkin's performance. In the few weeks since Elkin was appointed, he wrote, “I, together with the university heads in Israel, have lost all faith in Minister Elkin. He added that “The need to defend academic freedom and the independence of universities was never as urgent as it is now.”

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