'Zionism Won': Adelsons Hail Opening of Controversial Medical School in West Bank

Despite obstacles, the philanthropist couple joined students and officials to celebrate the start of the academic year as the university tries to fight its reputation as a 'settler' institution

Sheldon and Miriam Adelson at opening day of the medical school that bears their name.
Moti Milrod

Ariel University’s new medical school began its academic year on Sunday, with Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, its main funders, on campus to mark the occasion.

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With the arrival of Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, who were the major donors to the medical school that bears their name, their security guards had to fend off journalists trying to ask questions about the reports over the weekend about one of the criminal investigations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The case involves allegations of improprieties in conversations between the prime minister and Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, a rival newspaper to Israel Hayom, which is owned by the Adelsons. Over the weekend, Channel 13 disclosed tapes of the conversations in which Netanyahu and Mozes discussed how to weaken the Adelsons’ newspaper.

Among the dignitaries who were allowed near the Adelsons were university officials and right-wing politicians Naftali Bennett and Shuli Moalem-Refaeli. Boaz Bismuth, Israel Hayom’s editor, was also spotted.

Naftali Bennett and Sheldon Adelson at the opening of Ariel University's medical school on October 27, 2019.
Moti Milrod

Administrators had planned to open the school last year, but legal issues caused delays. In April, the High Court of Justice rejected a petition by two academics against the establishment of the medical school, based on the claim that the approval “casts a heavy shadow on the decision making process in higher education.” The petition was submitted after it emerged that a member of the committee that looked into approving the new faculty, Prof. Jonathan Halevy, had received an offer to serve as head of the university’s board of governors six months earlier.

Although the Council for Higher Education gave its final approval for the opening of the medical school, the institution still faces obstacles: Its budget, for example, has yet to be approved by the council’s Planning and Budgeting Committee.

'Zionism won'

A small ceremony marking the beginning of the school year took place in a classroom where the students were asked to give up their seats for the guests of honor and university officials. Prof. Shai Ashkenazi, the dean of the medical school, delivered a very short speech and then yielded the floor to the main speaker, Miriam Adelson.

The unfinished medical school building at Ariel University seen on October 27, 2019.
Moti Milrod

She spoke of lofty ideals such as Zionism, Jewish pride, and love of the land. She made it clear how important the day was for her and her husband. Dr. Adelson referred to a quote from the post-biblical Jewish sages about how the Land of Israel is acquired through tribulation and made reference to those who tried to prevent the opening of the school.

“In Israel, being Israel, we also had to withstand our tribulations. In Israel, being Israel, there were opponents who tried to block the establishment of a critical institution on ancient Jewish land and to deny us legitimacy,” she declared. “But we won, Zionism won, the truth won.”

The university administration presented her with a copy of the first academic article published by a faculty member of the medical school.

The American ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, recited the “Sheheheyanu,” prayer, which is said on momentous occasions, and remarked that in the Book of Deuteronomy, God tells the Jewish people to choose life. Why life and not wisdom or truth? he asked. Choosing life, he said, means appreciation for the holiness and value of every human being, and the medical school was advancing life itself.

The med school’s 70 students – of 662 applicants, as the administration took pains to mention – are attending class for now in the natural sciences building, because the medical school’s own building on the campus in the West Bank settlement is not finished.

The classroom was strewn with backpacks, water bottles and new white doctors’ smocks, a gift to the students. By the early afternoon, the students had finished a class in histology – the study of cells, tissues and organs. They took the opportunity during a break to get to know one another and talk about housing options.

“The class was interesting,” said Reut, 23, who wants to specialize in either oncology or gynecology. “I recently had to visit hospitals under unfortunate circumstances and I know that I’m interested in patient care.”

“I would have gone to study there even if the department had opened in Gaza,” joked Zahavit, a 30-year-old student, who has a bachelor’s degree in medical sciences from Tel Aviv University. She appeared rather satisfied so far.

Her friend Na’ama said Ariel was her first choice. “They said it would be a fun experience. The people are nice and it’s beautiful here.”

Na’ama and Zahavit are still living in Tel Aviv, but it’s clear to them that they will have to find an apartment in Ariel, because, as they put it, the schedule barely leaves them time to breathe.

Sheldon Adelson and David Friedman at the opening of Ariel University's medical school on October 27, 2019.
Moti Milrod

There was a lot of tension over the summer, Zahavit said, expressing regret that the medical school couldn’t open last year, as the Ariel University administration had originally planned. “Many of us could have started last year,” she remarked.

The influence of Yigal Cohen-Orgad, Ariel University’s chancellor until his death two months ago, could be felt throughout the festive opening ceremony. He was mentioned frequently in both casual conversation and speeches.

Projecting a different image

Journalists were not officially invited to the medical school opening because university officials were concerned that there might be last-minute glitches, but reporters came in any event. The university is trying to fight its reputation as a “settler” institution and has noted that there are students from all over the country, Jews and Arabs, religious and secular.

A scent of marijuana wafted through the air, and a university source made incidental mention of a survey that a third of the university’s students acknowledged having used such soft drugs. Rather than being embarrassed over the finding, it was seen as evidence of how normal the university was.

Outside the science building, on the lawn, it did indeed appear like a typical first day at a university – with inexpensive beer in disposable cups, a table with gifts to the students from the Student Union, a blood-donation stand and lively music.

The student activity stands were strikingly diverse – including the right-wing group Im Tirzu next to Ofek, which is identified with the Labor Party, and the religious studies department alongside an LGBT group.

Inside a classroom at Ariel University's new medical school, October 27, 2019.
Moti Milrod