Israeli University Heads Say Won’t Intervene in Discrimination Against Palestinian Schools

Committee says refusal to grant visas to guest lecturers is not in its purview ■ Hundreds of academics ask top officials to match guidelines at West Bank institutions to those at Israeli ones

File photo: Students at Birzeit University, 2017.

The Committee of University Heads in Israel has declared that the discrimination against Palestinian universities with regard to granting visas for visiting lecturers is a political issue and thus not one in which they will intervene. The announcement was made in response to an appeal made by 33 faculty members at Haifa University to Prof. Ron Rubin, the university’s president and the chairman of the committee.

The faculty members asked Rubin to address the harm inflicted by Israel on higher education in the West Bank over Israel’s handling of visas given to guest lecturers, which are generally not given at all, given after long delays, or not renewed.

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“As lecturers concerned with the academic freedom of ourselves and our guests, we feel obliged to see to it that the academic freedom of our colleagues is maintained,” reads their letter, which was sent on July 18 after a report on the matter was published in Haaretz a week earlier. “As reported in this story,” said the lecturers in their letter to the head of the committee, “a clear negative change was initiated in the process of granting visas and temporary residence permits to academics in Palestinian enclaves three years ago, even though these guests had passed security clearance requirements. . . it appears that the policy regarding guest lecturers is discriminatory in comparison to the policy pertaining to Israeli universities, and that this policy is designed to disrupt the functioning of regular and autonomous academic activity.”

According to the letter’s signatories, who are members of the Left Forum at Haifa University, “the heads of Israeli universities have a duty to look into the charges made in Haaretz and to demand that the government protect academic freedom, as well as the ongoing activity and development of higher education institutions in the West Bank. They should demand an equal process in the granting of temporary residence or work permits to guests coming to Israel or the territories.”

However, according to Dvora Margolis, the head of administration at the University Heads Committee, “this matter is in the realm of political decisions that the committee cannot be and is not interested in being part of.” She explained that the committee is a voluntary organization consisting of the heads of research universities in Israel, with a mandate that allows it to pursue common policies in areas related to the advancement of higher education in Israel. A meticulously adhered-to policy is that activities will only directly relate to this mandate.

Margolis wrote that “the question of restrictions on the entry of academics into Israel, based on their personal profiles or due to their support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, is under constant discussion between the committee and the Ministry for Strategic Affairs. The committee believes that the entrance of students or academics who come to Israel for clearly identified academic purposes should not be restricted. This position has been repeatedly presented, clearly and unequivocally, to all the agencies dealing with this matter in relevant government departments.”

Haaretz asked the committee if one could conclude that it believes that instruction and learning in Palestinian universities in the West Bank is a political matter, thus preventing the committee from intervening in the considerations of Israeli authorities that are trying to disrupt or prevent these activities. The committee’s spokesman repeated the statements made by Margolis.

Following the story in Haaretz, one hundred current and former faculty members at the Hebrew University and thirty lecturers at Ben Gurion University signed a letter calling on their colleagues and universities to take a public stand against the harm inflicted on higher education in the West Bank. The letter also refers to the fact that no student visas are given to foreigners wishing to study in the West Bank, so that people are deterred from applying or make do with tourist visas that expire before the end of the academic year.

Academia for Equality, a group consisting of 500 academics in Israel, has turned to the attorney general as well as to the coordinator of activities in the territories, the military advocate general and the interior minister, asking for the equalization of procedures granting visas for lecturers coming to the West Bank with procedures that apply in Israel.

In conjunction with this, 360 lecturers, mainly from overseas, signed a similar petition addressed to the same four people. A response from the coordinator of activities to the letter from the Haifa University faculty members, also sent to the petitioners, said that “there is currently some staff work underway preparing a procedure that will regulate the entry of different populations into the region, including students.” A similar response has been given over the last three years to lawyers who represent foreigners, including spouses of Palestinians who live in the West Bank, who encounter difficulties in obtaining temporary residence permits.