Hebrew U President Takes Over University Council After Chairman's Resignation

Prof. Asher Cohen was appointed following the resignation of Prof. Roy Rubin over what he claimed was increased politicization of higher education in Israel

Shira Kadari-Ovadia
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Prof. Asher Cohen speaks at a conference in Jerusalem, October 30, 2019.
Prof. Asher Cohen speaks at a conference in Jerusalem, October 30, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

Hebrew University President Prof. Asher Cohen was chosen to head Israel's Association of University Heads Wednesday, after Prof. Ron Robin resigned in protest Tuesday over a series of decisions by Higher Education Minister Zeev Elkin.

"We are in a difficult time where we must all protect our system of higher education, research and science," Cohen said upon being chosen for the position. "Harming research and science can mean only one thing - harming the general public and the future of the State of Israel. We cannot let that happen," he said.

Upon his resignation, Robin cited attempts by the government to "terrorize, weaken, censor and let political interests dictate the research agenda," and called 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 Elkin, of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud. 

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

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.”

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.”

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