Judge Erez Yakuel’s courtroom on the eighth floor of the Tel Aviv District Court was unusually crowded on Thursday, for the first hearing of an appeal by American student Lara Alqasem against the state’s decision to bar her from entering the country, where she is supposed to start classes at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Sunday.
On the left, within touching distance of Alqasem’s lawyer, sat the university’s attorney, Pepi Yakirevich. The courtesies of legal jargon shouldn’t obscure the unusualness of the situation: The first university established in pre-state Israel is fighting in court on the opposite side of the state. Hebrew University’s decision to join the appeal was a clear expression of academic civics.
“One of the most important goals of bringing researchers and students here is for them to be exposed to life in Israel,” Yakirevich said during the hearing. “When they return home to their own countries, they’ll help us combat boycotts.”
If Alqasem studies here and gets to know Israel, Yakirevich added, the student herself could assist the battle against BDS.
- Israel's Ministry of Silly Affairs
- 'Is a person considered a BDS activist forever?': Court hears appeal by Lara Alqasem
- This is the real game Israel is playing with the BDS movement. It’s terrifying
In legal language, the university’s arguments against Alqasem’s deportation sound technical: She obtained the requisite visa from Israel’s consulate in Miami, and her deportation would undermine the university’s ability to attract students and faculty from overseas, which is one of the Council for Higher Education’s stated goals.
But this isn’t just a technical, procedural issue. As a resolution passed by the university’s senate this week said, the university is “a place for exchanging opinions, acquiring knowledge and creating it. It’s a place that isn’t afraid of controversies and rejoices in a multiplicity of voices.”
The government’s decision to bar Alqasem “solely because of her views constitutes a threat to what the institution of the university represents,” the resolution added.
In a letter to the faculty, the university’s rector, Prof. Barak Medina, added, “We believe it’s better to have an open conversation and to respond substantively, rather than with force, to claims that we should be boycotted.” He termed the government’s policy on this issue “strange.”
>> Read more: Leading conservative NYT columnists slam Israel over detention of U.S. student ■ University chiefs stand by U.S. student held in Israel: Her arrest causes country damage ■ Free Lara Alqasem, the U.S. student detained at Ben-Gurion Airport | Editorial
Off the record, a senior university staffer described the events of the past few days as a “march of folly” by the government. But it isn’t folly that affects the government alone. When a policy damages the university’s international reputation – inter alia, as a place where it’s possible to exercise freedom of expression – the university has no choice but to take a stand.
Statements of support for and pride in the university’s activist stance have flooded academic social networks, showing that there’s an enormous thirst for someone willing to stand up for fundamental principles.
In the current political climate, the decision of when it’s worth the risks that criticizing the government now entails is not a simple one, a senior staffer at one university said. People seem to fear publicly expressing an opinion, in part due to poisonous tweets like those of Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan (“What chutzpah for an institution funded by the Israeli public’s money to ignore the law ... and help someone who boycotts and wants to harm Israel!” he wrote of Hebrew University). It’s no accident that Hebrew University is often termed “activist” – and not in a complimentary way.
Though any Israeli university (except perhaps Ariel) could find itself in a similar situation tomorrow, the presidents of other universities have chosen to keep mum and await the outcome of the battle. Instead of offering public support and solidarity, the committee of university heads simply sent a letter to Erdan, who is leading the war on Alqasem.
In this letter, first reported by Haaretz, the council warned of “the damage caused to Israel and Israeli academia” by Erdan’s policy. One can only hope the decision not to publish the letter or speak out on this issue isn’t due to self-censorship.
But Hebrew University’s mobilization, and even the quiet intervention by the committee (which also protested Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis’ refusal to let Prof. Yael Amitai serve on the scientific council of the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development due to her past support for refusal to serve in the army), merely highlights the surrounding vacuum.
It’s hard to extract any statement of principle from the Council for Higher Education, which has overall responsibility for higher education in Israel.
The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, the senior representative of Israel’s scientific community, has also stayed mum.
The Council for Higher Education’s behavior is particularly grave. It is supposed to separate the political system from academia in order to prevent harm to academic freedom. But in recent years, it has become just another government agency with a very flexible spine. This change was accomplished, inter alia, by reducing the number of university representatives on the council and appointing yes-men of the education minister to senior positions on it.
Hebrew University is still waiting for the council to accede to its request that it take a stand on Alqasem’s case. But the council has chosen not to comment.
At the close of his letter to the faculty this week, Medina wrote that Hebrew University will continue to fight “the significant obstacles placed on the freedom of movement of Palestinian students who study here” from both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel academia rarely speaks about Palestinian students. One exception was a statement published on the university’s Facebook page a few days after the nation-state law was approved.
“It’s important to us to stress that the university is committed to continuing to be a diverse academic institution, an inclusive institution for all students, faculty and administrative staff,” it said. “We’ll continue to work for an egalitarian campus in which everyone who enters our gates feels wanted ... We’re committed to continuing to provide a place for all groups in Israeli society.”
Coming after the university’s faculty led the battle a few years ago against the Council for Higher Education’s proposal to allow separate-sex classes for ultra-Orthodox students, its actions in the Alqasem case seem to show that Hebrew University will do what it thinks is right.
Alongside Arab students
The serious damage done by the nation-state law can be seen, inter alia, in a petition signed by over 200 faculty members at the University of Haifa. The petition, written in both Hebrew and Arabic, said that this “bad law” shouldn’t be allowed “to seep onto the campus and destroy what we’ve built with great toil.”
Making Arabic present “in every part of our campus and inculcating it in members of our community is a goal of the first importance,” especially because the law undermined Arabic’s status, the petition added. “As a university community, we have a special commitment to the society in which we operate, with all its human diversity.”
The statement was distributed by the faculty during the first week of classes.
A first step in this direction came on Wednesday, when the dean of the faculty of the humanities, Prof. Gur Alroey, announced that his faculty had finished posting multilingual signs (in Hebrew, Arabic and English) in all faculty offices. “Many Arab students study in this faculty, and signs in three languages are a principled expression of the fact that the University of Haifa in general and the faculty in particular see them as an inseparable part of the academic community,” he wrote.
This is an initial, partial correction of a longstanding problem in many academic institutes. As the Haifa professors said in their petition, “The road to an equalitarian society – on campus and off it – is still long.”