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Hebrew University’s Apology Enables Persecution of the Left

After university fails to back lecturer falsely accused of taking a student to task for coming to class in an army uniform, faculty members are asking themselves what they can say in class

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Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus in Jerusalem, January 2019.
Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus in Jerusalem, January 2019. Credit: Emil Salman

It’s not easy to stand up to politicians who incite others, and to social media users who respond to the incitement, or to the powers that want to decide what we can and cannot say. At moments like these, which the current climate – and those who benefit from it – provide with ever growing frequency, our ability to stop, set boundaries and not get carried away is tested.

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Three months ago the Hebrew University of Jerusalem demonstrated good academic citizenship when it stood behind the American student Lara Alqasem. It’s hard to say the same for the apology the university published on Monday about the “unusual incident” between Dr. Carola Hilfrich and a student in Israeli army uniform.

Despite the difficulties the university faced this time – mainly the concern that the “extreme leftist” image Education Minister Naftali Bennett attributes to it would seemingly be confirmed and wipe out any possibility of dialogue – it should have responded differently. Rather than apologizing, it should have defended a lecturer who was receiving outright threats on her life.

In the days since the incident, which took place in the social sciences faculty on the Mount Scopus campus, a few details have come out that contradict the far-right Im Tirtzu’s version that was quoted in the media. For example, it turned out that the soldier had come to class in uniform before and no comments had been made; no one said anything to her about it this time either during class; the exchange between the soldier and the Arab student – who has yet to speak out herself – took place at the end of class, and Hilfrich was not aware of it. The grave sin of the heretofore esteemed lecturer was her attempt to explain that sensitivity should be shown in a multicultural academic environment.

According to a report in Haaretz and the university’s review of the matter, at no point did Hilfrich tell the student that she could not come to class in uniform. She did not throw her out of class, or humiliate her, and certainly did not “shake” her or otherwise act violently toward her. And yet, a witch hunt is now underway against Hilfrich, who teaches in the university’s Department of General and Comparative Literature.

Right after the incident was made public, the university heads released an apology, which stated that from the conversation between Hilfrich and the student, “it might be understood that the lecturer has criticism of the fact that the student is in uniform.” That is a completely wrong conclusion, they wrote, and so “the lecturer, like the leadership of the university, has chosen to make a public apology.”

Anyone who thought that this would end the affair has not yet realized the extent of cooperation between right-wing politicians, right-wing organizations and the obedient media. The apology published on Monday in the newspapers states that the university “regrets the unusual incident.” The statement, signed by the university president, Prof. Asher Cohen and the chairwoman of the student union, Shir Mordechai, gave no details about the incident, nor did it clarify whether it was referring to Hilfrich’s remark to the student at the end of class, which only the student heard, that the uniform she was wearing has particular significance in an exchange with an Arab student.

According to the heads of the university, over the past few days “damage has been done to us, unjustly.” Hence the need for the special statement, which they said was not “an apology” but a kind of expression of regret intended to clarify that the institution accepts and supports students in uniform. Such arguments were swallowed up by Im Tirtzu’s shouts of joy, and it is very doubtful that they will delay, even for a few seconds, the next assault on a faculty member. It seems that the hazy apology only serves the assaults on the lecturer, who felt that she had been abandoned to face the “leftist hunters,” as Im Tirtzu activists sometimes like to proudly call themselves in moments of euphoria.

The goal of Im Tirtzu and their helpers in the government is broader: to silence any voice considered “anti-patriotic.” No precise definition is required, perhaps the opposite. Any critical thought that could undermine the government and its “truths” becomes in a matter of seconds a terrible threat to national existence itself, the greatest possible blow, and insulting and dangerous defiance. The way to overcome this is to restrict points of view more than ever, and with them any reference to “controversial matters” – occupation, discrimination, women’s rights and LGBT rights.

After the publication of the apology, quite a few faculty members are asking themselves what they can say in class and in personal conversation and how they can skirt controversial issues. The violent opposition that the teacher Adam Werte encountered a few years ago is not limited to high schools, where many faculty members have now internalized the message and avoid entering any minefields. This is the spirit of the times, but it’s not education. It is the obligation of the Hebrew University – and the whole academic world – to come out against this.

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