Hebrew University President Rebuts Critics: Army Ties Won’t Change Academic Life on Campus

Prof. Asher Cohen says intelligence officers in training will live off-campus, denies Haaretz reports that students will carry weapons

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Protesters don IDF uniforms at a protest at Hebrew University, January 8, 2019.
Protesters don IDF uniforms at a protest at Hebrew University, January 8, 2019. Credit: Emil Salman

Prof. Asher Cohen, president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the university will continue to cooperate with the IDF, rejecting the criticism of its winning a tender to run an academic excellence program for Military Intelligence officers in training. Even though the presence of the soldiers on campus will have an effect, the nature of the classes will be completely determined by the teaching faculty, said Cohen.

“We are not asking for [class] discussions to be conducted differently, and neither has the army asked for it. The army has not made any request to change anything in the content of the courses,” added Cohen.

>> Read more: Hebrew University to host Israeli army base on campus ■ Fake news? Not at Hebrew University | Opinion

The elite program, known as Havatzalot, offers three-year training for future intelligence officers, as part of their mandatory army service. It includes basic training for combat soldiers, officer’s training, a bachelor’s degree, and military intelligence and leadership training. The program was conducted at Haifa University since its founding 14 years ago.

Cohen and the IDF Spokesperson’s Office completely rejected claims reported in Haaretz that the student-soldiers would carry weapons on campus: “No one will enter the campus with weapons – period,” said Cohen. He also said that in contradiction to the reports, the students will live outside the Mount Scopus campus, in a separate building that the university is renting to the IDF. “This is a commercial rental. Do we tell people who rent a building from us what to do and how to use it?”

Cohen did say that the students living in the building today will have to move so the IDF can carry out renovations, but “everyone received a different housing solution at the same level or even better.” He also rejected claims that students now living in the dorms would have to rent outside apartments because of the program, saying that the Mount Scopus campus had a surplus of dorm rooms and no shortage is expected on campus in coming years.

Entry to the residential compound will be allowed only by biometric identification of the students and staff, and university employees will need advance permission to enter and spend time with the students in their dorms, states the tender.

The students in Havatzalot, 50 in each academic year, take a double major. The first concentration is in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, and for the second they can choose between mathematics, economics, philosophy or computer science. They take courses in Middle East studies, political science and sociology, as well as in the other field of their choosing. The field where they have the greatest presence is expected to be Middle Eastern history, with a third of their program focusing on this field.

In response to criticism from faculty about hosting the program, Cohen said Havatzalot has existed for years and Hebrew University has a similar program it has been running for 40 years. Cohen is referring to the Talpiot program at the university, in which IDF cadets study in a highly selective program at the university’s Givat Ram campus for a bachelor’s degree in physics, math or computer science – before beginning their military service.

A faculty member, not from the Middle East studies department, rejected the comparison with Talpiot. ”They study completely nonpolitical subjects in Talpiot. The Arab students in those fields are not a special group in any aspect concerning the study materials. In comparison, Middle Eastern studies are studies of Arab history, of the conflict.” The presence of such a large group of soldiers, intelligence officer cadets in uniform, would drastically change the nature of the discussion – and many fewer Arab students would come, said the faculty member.

Cohen said the Havatzalot students would have a positive influence: “These are high-level students, higher than the average of the other students in the department. It will enrich the department, improve the humanities and bring new personnel into the system.”

Members of the Middle Eastern studies faculty preferred not to speak with Haaretz after the university won the competitive bidding process to run the program, but a number of them said over the past few weeks that they were uncomfortable about the decision to participate in the tender.

Cohen said in response to these reservations: “Can one department of eight, 10 or 20 faculty members determine the overall university policy? Does its position need to be the decisive one? There are a range of opinions on the matter in the department, and now it is clear that the department will cooperate,” said Cohen. The department is worried about the new staff needed to accept such a large number of new students, and the matter is under discussion by the university’s senior management, he added.

As for claims that the university will be required to provide the IDF with grades, attendance and other academic information about the students, as reported in Haaretz, Cohen does not see this as anything unusual. The practice is also common with students whose scholarships depend on their grades – and it exists in other military academic programs too, such as Talpiot and medical students in the military, he added.