The Tel Aviv University administration recently announced its intention to shut down the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research. The decision was told to various people at the center, and is slated to go into effect in the middle of the academic year.
According to sources involved in the issue, the decision was not preceded by any examination of the center’s work during the past several years. In the background to the decision is the possibility that the donors will cease to fund it.
“Even if its intentions are otherwise, by closing the center the university is joining the murky wave of directing fewer and fewer resources to peace research, democracy and humanist values,” says Prof. Izhak Schnell of the Department of Geography and Human Environment. His colleague Dr. Uriel Abulof of the School of Political Science adds: “There is no place more important for nurturing peace than academia. Academia is experienced precisely in the possibility of thinking about and imagining what doesn’t exist at the moment, and analyzing the ways to reach it.”
The Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, a joint project of the Faculties of Social Sciences, Humanities and Law, was founded in 1992 and is considered one of the leading academic forums in the field in Israel. Its activity includes supporting research and publications, holding workshops and conferences and forming cooperative projects within the university and elsewhere, including the Palestinian Authority and civil society organizations. The center is funded by Daniela and Daniel Steinmetz, who established it in memory of their daughter, and it is headed by African history specialist Prof. Moti Tamarkin.
The university responds that “an academic procedure is currently underway to examine the feasibility of continuing the center’s activity.” According to Daniela Steinmetz, “The relevance and the interest in resolving the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict has waned considerably,” and this has “led us to think it would be preferable to invest the funds in something for which there is a greater need.”
In the past several years the center has supported studies that dealt with topics such as the influence on young people and adults of online information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the integration of graduates of Arab schools into the labor market, relations between Jewish and Arab students at college, and examination of the government’s policy towards the Arab minority.
Currently underway are studies of topics such as the ways peace and human rights organizations depict their activities to the public, the influence of the religious Zionist right on the decision-making process in Israel, the influence of the Palestinian prisoners’ movement on the agenda in the territories and also, as in one title, “The rise and crystallization of the Arab middle class in Israel.”
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People at the university who have sought explanations from the administrative heads for the decision to shut down the research center have received only partial, evasive and sometimes contradictory answers. These relate, for example, to considerations of the Steinmetz family, to changes in the presidency of the university last summer (Prof. Ariel Porat replaced Prof. Joseph Klafter) or to vague dissatisfaction with “the lack of media prominence” for the center, as one of the sources put it.
“I was dumbfounded and very sad to hear the news of the plan to close the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research. It is hard to imagine that such a plan even crossed anyone’s mind,” Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal of the School of Education wrote to Porat. “After about 45 years on the university’s faculty and about 40 years during which I have been engaged in researching conflicts in the world and their solution through peace, I can testify that the center is one of the most splendid and active contributors to the production of knowledge and developments for expanding views that I am familiar with anywhere in the world. I refuse to believe that Tel Aviv University will shut down a center that aims to advance peace in the state of Israel.”
According to Prof. Emeritus Ilai Alon of the Philosophy Department, who studies conflicts in Islamic culture, “The subject of peace has been pushed aside in academia, just as in the general public. This isn’t a matter of direct political influence, but rather of the general atmosphere. No one is talking about peace. This outlook has trickled down into the public and from them to donors to the university, though it’s not certain that this is the order in which it has happened. Who if not academia needs to examine and play with ideas that don’t look so applicable in the next 10 minutes? Academia needs to think beyond the here and now. It is supposed to be a stable basis, beyond political, economic and meteorological fluctuations. Closing the center is a very grave mistake.”
Political scientist Dr. Uriel Abulof holds a similar view. Without addressing the way in which the decision was taken, he says, “It’s very regrettable that the university is shutting down a center the function of which is to try to figure out whether and how it is possible to achieve peace. This says a number of sad things, not only about the university but also about the place where Israeli society is today. Giving up the center is like giving up academia’s role of nurturing and creating a space for the possibility of peace in our lives.”
According to geographer Prof. Schnell, the Steinmetz Center “was focused less on advancing the prestige of the university and more on a contribution to Israeli society. However, it seems that the heads of the university are emphasizing the international rankings of universities. In the decision to shut down the center there is a relinquishing of an institute with a very large social contribution. In the atmosphere of BDS in academia in Europe and North America, the existence of such a center (and support for the researchers studying peace) serves as an answer, albeit a partial one, to the accusations that academia in Israel supports the occupation.”
In light of the forthcoming closure, at the beginning of this month a group of about 15 scholars, who have been awarded grants by the center, wrote to Porat with a request to make it possible to publish their studies. “The hasty and illegal decision has harmed quite a number of researchers in a significant way, after they carried out their obligations to the center, which is now breaching its obligation to them. This situation is unacceptable in self-respecting institutions. Breaking the center’s obligation is illegal and damages the university’s credibility and the decency under the authority of which the center operated,” the letter reads.