Top Israeli Academic Body Paralyzed After Mass Resignation Over Bennett's Policies

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Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Naftali Bennett.Credit: Avishag Sh'ar-Yeshuv

Six members of Israel’s Council for Higher Education announced their resignation from the council on Sunday morning in protest at a leadership change that Education Minister Naftali Bennett made on the council. Bennett recently dismissed the council’s deputy head, Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron, and instead appointed Dr. Rivka Wadmany Shauman, a move that sparked considerable criticism from academics.

This is the first time that members of the council have ever resigned en masse in protest at a move by an education minister.

For its part, Bennett’s office issued a statement thanking the resigning members for their service to higher education, adding that replacement members will be appointed shortly, drawn from senior members of the academic community. As a practical matter, the resignations will paralyze the work of the council for the time being because they leave just 16 members remaining, less than the minimum of 19 the law requires.

Sources familiar with the matter have said that despite Bennett’s reaction, it is not certain that the law allows the education minister to pursue an appointment process now for six members. The current council was appointed in February 2012 for a term of five years, ending in 2017, by then-Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar. The appointment process under Sa’ar did not go smoothly, amid claims of members chosen for political reasons. Three of the five members representing the public were associates of Sa’ar and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both of whom are from the Likud party. Since then, some of the members were replaced by Sa’ar’s successor, Shay Piron of Yesh Atid.

The members submitting their resignations on Sunday were Prof. Moshe Maor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Prof. Judith Gal-Ezer of the Open University, Prof. Eli Zeldov of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron of Tel Aviv University, Prof. Fadia Nasser-Abu Alhija of Tel Aviv University and Prof. Chaya Kalcheim of the Hebrew University. The six concluded their joint letter of resignation with a call to immediately disband the council as currently constituted, and to appoint an entirely new complement of members, to be selected “with transparency.”

About a month ago, 1,500 academics signed a protest petition against Bennett’s actions on the council, which he chairs. They asked that a public committee be convened to establish minimum qualifications for membership on the council and that an entirely new council be appointed.

There was an instance in the past in which a single council member resigned over differences with the minister, when Prof. Ora Limor of the Open University did so when the college in the West Bank settlement of Ariel was recognized as a university and the council’s support was enlisted for the move.

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