Why Adelson Is Pouring Millions Into an Israeli University in the West Bank

Critics say the fiercely controversial Ariel University serves one purpose only: to entrench the settlements, putting the final nail into the coffin of any potential peace agreement

Sheldon Adelson at Ariel University in the West Bank, June 28, 2017.
Moti Milrod

Five years ago this month, Ariel University – the only Israeli institution of higher education located in the West Bank – was upgraded from college status to a full-fledged research institute.

The move was fiercely denounced by opponents of the settlement movement, both in Israel and abroad, as an attempt to further entrench the Israeli occupation. As well as being a political statement, this change in status came with some tangible benefits: As an official university, Ariel would be eligible for significantly higher levels of state funding.

The university recently broke ground on its most ambitious project to date: a medical school – it will be Israel’s sixth, if and when it is completed – made possible through a generous $20 million donation from American tycoon Sheldon Adelson.

So, despite all the critical barbs, would it be fair to say Ariel University has made it? Yigal Cohen-Orgad, its long-standing chancellor, certainly thinks so. And the medical school, he promises, is just the beginning.

“We will double the built-up area of the campus in the coming years,” Cohen-Orgad, a former finance minister from Likud, told Haaretz in a recent interview. He proceeded to tick off plans for other projects, including an institute for Jewish heritage, a regional agricultural research & development center and a technology accelerator.

Sheldon Adelson, left, with wife Miriam attending the cornerstone-laying ceremony of the new medical school at Ariel University, June 28, 2017.
Haim Zach/GPO

His enthusiasm is not widely shared within the Israeli academic community, though. For example, Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, the former head of the Council for Higher Education’s budget committee, dismisses all these investments as a huge waste of taxpayer and private donor money.

“This university serves one purpose and one purpose only,” said the Argentinian-Israeli economist, who currently serves on the opposition benches as a Zionist Union Knesset member, “and that is to undermine any future possibility for a peace agreement with the Palestinians by making evacuation of the settlements that much harder.

“It’s located in an isolated settlement, far from everything, and does not benefit the local Palestinian population at all,” Trajtenberg told Haaretz. “As an academic, I have a very hard time with this.”

Despite all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the medical school launch earlier this month, Trajtenberg says he does not believe it will advance much beyond the cornerstone-laying phase.

“I’m not saying Israel doesn’t need more doctors, but we’ve just set up a new medical school up north in Safed,” he said. “Beyond that, our existing medical schools all have the capacity to absorb more students, so there’s absolutely no justification for another medical school in Israel.”

Trajtenberg estimated the total cost of establishing a new medical school in Israel at $200 million – “so with all due respect, Adelson’s money isn’t going to get them very far,” he noted.

In his former position as head of the education council’s budget committee, Trajtenberg had been asked to formulate a position on whether Ariel should be accredited as a university.

“I looked at two key issues at the time,” he recalled. “Did Israel need another university and, if so, should that university be based in Samaria? The answer to both these questions was no.”

Students at a library in Ariel University in 2012.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

A university run by a general

Because it is located in the occupied territories, Ariel is not supervised by Israel’s education council but by a separate entity: the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria. This council was created for the sole purpose of supervising Ariel University, since no other Israeli institute of higher education exists over the Green Line (Israel’s pre-1967 borders). It takes its marching orders from the general in charge of IDF Central Command in the West Bank – so though it may look and feel like a real university, Ariel effectively operates under the jurisdiction of the Israeli army.

Some of its most vocal critics have come not from the international academic community, which regularly targets Israel because of the occupation, but from within the ranks of Israel’s own universities. As part of their unofficial “soft” boycott of Ariel, as a matter of principle many Israeli academics do not attend conferences held there. Some will not even peer-review publications or serve on tenure and dissertation committees for faculty and students based there.

The Israeli Sociological Society, which has 1,000 members, voted several years ago to ban any form of academic cooperation with the institution. It is thus far the only Israeli academic association to take such an extreme step. Uri Ram, a professor at Be’er Sheva’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and president of the organization, said the boycott was not against individuals employed there, but against the institution, which he described as “not a normal place.”

“As a matter of principle, I oppose the occupation, and therefore I oppose all institutions that help entrench it,” he explained. As he sees it, Ariel University is “another nail” in the coffin of any potential peace agreement.

Ariel University, situated deep in the West Bank.
Ilan Assayag

Not to say that Ariel, by virtue of its contentious location, doesn’t get a hard time abroad. Nine years ago, researchers at Ariel were disqualified from competing in an international solar power design competition held in Madrid, the reason being their work address. And three years ago, organizers of an academic conference in London requested that participants from Ariel hide their institutional affiliation. Rather than subject themselves to such humiliation, the Ariel faculty members opted not to attend.

Because of their location, researchers at Ariel are not eligible for many of the international grants available to their counterparts at Israeli universities located within the Green Line. Thus, for example, the European Research Council and the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation do not, as a matter of principle, grant funding to research projects conducted in the territories.

For these reasons, despite the generous support it receives from the Israeli government and donors like Adelson, Ariel has arguably yet to make a true impact where it really counts: luring the best and brightest minds in the country. And so, 35 years after it was founded as the first Israeli college in the West Bank and five years after its accreditation as a university, Ariel has still not shaken off the stigma of being a second-rate institution.

Not a ‘first-choice’ school

Amal Medlij, a 24-year-old student from the northern Arab town of Kafr Qara, admits Ariel University was not her first choice.

“I visited lots of campuses and it turned out this was the only place where I didn’t need very high grades to study engineering,” said Medlij, as she stopped for a coffee break on campus during exams a few weeks ago.

Her first year on campus was miserable, she recalled, but over time Ariel grew on her. “Now I’m planning to study for my master’s degree here,” added Medlij, head of the Arab student union here.

Sheldon Adelson and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attending the cornerstone-laying ceremony for the medical school at Ariel University, June 28, 2017.
Moti Milrod

Nechemya Rosenfeld, who hails from Jerusalem, has a similar story. “With my grades and test scores, this was the best place I could get into to study psychology,” said the 27-year-old, who will be participating in a prestigious teaching program next year.

After making the rounds at several other colleges, Nov Cnaan finally ended up in Ariel last year and believes it was a good choice for her. “I find the quiet here conducive to studying,” said the 31-year-old, originally from a small community in the south of Israel.

Like other students questioned, Cnaan – a second-year student in Middle Eastern studies and Arabic – cited the absence of a cutthroat atmosphere as one of the key advantages of studying at Ariel. “In that way it’s not like other universities in Israel,” she said, “although I would say that getting in and out of here can be quite challenging.”

For sure, Ariel is not an easy commute. Jutting 20 kilometers (12 miles) into the West Bank, it is by far the most remote of the large Israeli settlements. Passengers traveling to the university must pass through two military checkpoints after crossing the Green Line.

According to university data, some 15,000 students study in Ariel today – about double the number from 10 years ago. Responding to its critics, the university likes to flaunt its 700 Israeli Arab students. It prefers not to mention, though, that few, if any, Palestinians from the territories are enrolled there – a rather astonishing fact, considering that Palestinians comprise the overwhelming majority of the West Bank population.

Students at Ariel University in 2015. The institute says it now has 15,000 students.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Cohen-Orgad maintains that Palestinians are entitled to enroll but choose not to. The reason that may be true is that Palestinians are effectively banned from entering Israeli settlements, so getting in and out of the campus might not be worth the effort.

Another bit of information the university likes to cite is the broad cross-section of Israeli society its students and faculty represent – yes, even leftists study and teach there, it is wont to point out. “We are very pluralistic,” as Cohen-Orgad puts it. “Only about 10 percent are coming from what is called ‘the settlements.’”

Not according to a longtime faculty member, who identified himself as left leaning and asked not be quoted by name. “Among my students, I would say that 25 to 30 percent of them are from the settlements,” he said.

While he dreams of a future peace agreement that will allow Israel to dismantle the settlements, this faculty member said that until that happened, he harbored no qualms about teaching at Ariel.

Milken, Moskowitz and more

According to the education council, in the past fiscal year Ariel University received 260 million shekels (about $73 million) from the state. Gifts from overseas donors have also been instrumental to its rapid expansion. The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, for example, donated $4.5 million last year to the health center that will house the planned medical school. The school of communications is named after the late Irving Moskowitz and his wife Cherna, longtime supporters of the settlement movement. The main campus is named after the Milken family: Lowell Milken – the younger brother of junk-bond king Michael Milken, who spent two years in prison for securities fraud – runs the Milken Family Foundation and is known to have good ties with Cohen-Orgad.

Many of the donations are funneled through American Friends of Ariel University – the New York-based nonprofit that allows donors to make U.S. tax-deductible gifts to this settlement institution.

A recent brochure lists the university’s key American patrons, among them Sheri and Arnold Schlesinger of Los Angeles; Julian Geller of Los Angeles; the Magbit Foundation of Greater Los Angeles; the Syms Foundation of New York; Hart Hasten of Indianapolis; David Paslin of San Francisco; Anna Amos Milo of Palm Beach; and Linda and Raphael Benaroya of Englewood, New Jersey.

The university’s board of governors includes some well-known supporters of the settlement movement, among them Marc Zell, head of Republicans Overseas Israel; venture capitalist and GOP donor Ken Abramowitz (also chairman of the American Friends of Likud); former diplomat and Likud politician Moshe Arens (also a Haaretz contributor); and Cherna Moskowitz. Its president is Israeli-American venture capitalist Itzhak Fisher.

Alienating the local population

The college that preceded Ariel University was founded in 1982, originally as a regional branch of Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan. After the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria voted to upgrade it to a full-fledged university in July 2012, the decision was ratified that December by the army’s Central Command, upon the recommendation of then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

An attempt at the time by the heads of Israel’s major universities to challenge the decision in the Supreme Court failed. Their claim was that Ariel’s accreditation as a university would jeopardize them financially, since there would be more universities competing for the same budget. They also expressed deep concerns that the upgrade in Ariel’s status would fuel academic boycotts of Israel abroad.

As part of the campaign against Ariel, 165 Israeli academics signed a petition announcing their intention to boycott the institution. “The college in Ariel was established as part of a vision whereby Israel continues indefinitely its occupation of these territories,” they wrote at the time. “This policy rules out the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and inevitably leads to the violent repression of the Palestinian population. The Palestinians living in the region of Ariel are barred from entry into the settlement and the college. An academic institution that is not serving the population around it, and in fact ignores and alienates the local population, cannot be part of a free academia in a democratic state.”

In addition to a school of communications and school of architecture, Ariel houses four faculties: engineering; social sciences and humanities; natural sciences; and health. It is particularly proud of the large number of Israeli students of Ethiopian origin enrolled on its campus, as well as a special program it created to assist students in the high-functioning autism spectrum.

Yet despite the appearances of a thriving academic institution, the controversy over Ariel has not abated. If anything, it may even be intensifying, as the future of the settlements increasingly polarizes Israelis.

Cohen-Orgad tries to make light of the forces working against him. “They do not inhibit or have a meaningful effect on the development of our academic excellence,” he says. “Is there a noise effect? Yes, but even when the dogs bark, the caravan moves on.”