The Council for Higher Education is demanding that academic institutions in the country explain why they accept or reject proposals to set up legal aid clinics in their schools.
The aim is to create a mechanism for supervising the clinics, which in recent years have been criticized by right-wing groups and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who claim they are politically biased. Currently it is up to each institution of higher learning to decide whether or not to set up a proposed clinic, in accordance with the Council of Higher Education Law that protects academic freedom.
According to the new policy, the head of an academic institution “will receive and gather the annual reports of the clinics that exist in the institution," including reports about the bodies that have proposed setting up new legal aid clinics and the reasons for approving or rejecting them during the year. These reports must be submitted to the CHE.
The council adds that, “a student will not have to participate in a clinic that is contrary to his personal views” – which seems superfluous, since undergoing training in such clinics is considered an elective activity, and in any event students themselves decide which clinic they want to work for and then undergo an application process.
The CHE's decisions were approved at a stormy meeting last Tuesday, with 12 council members voting in favor, six against and one abstaining. Bennett told the daily Israel Hayom, which first reported on the meeting, that “we will now also open up legal training in academia to right-wing organizations, which until now were excluded from the map because of internal pressures at the universities.”
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Several CHE members said the new requirement to report on clinics that were not opened – because they have the same status as existing elective courses that each institution decides to offer – is unprecedented, and they warned of the “serious, disproportionate and probably illegal damage” such a move poses to academic freedom, deriving from unacceptable political pressure. Many also said the policy could hamper the efforts clinics make to help people who have no other access to legal counsel.
“The rhetoric of ‘balance’ is ridiculous when one understands that the role of the clinics is to provide legal representation to weak populations,” said Vardit Damari-Madar, the professional director of the Center for Clinical Legal Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “It would be like demanding that we also represent banks if we also take upon ourselves to represent those made homeless because of debt. The CHE decision reveals a desire to silence and damage the defense of human rights.”
Another source who requested anonymity said, “Most of the CHE members have become a rubber stamp. Not only does the council not fulfill its mandate – to serve as a buffer between academia and politics – it is actively contributing to the politicization of Israeli higher education.”
There are currently 110 legal clinics operating at 13 universities and colleges in the country. Their year-long programs include both courses and practical experience in casework and other projects. Some clinics focus on social issues, like fighting discrimination in housing and employment or defending the rights of asylum seekers, while others see their primary role as providing law students with work experience.
Right-wing organizations have recently been focusing their attention on a few legal clinics, like the one dedicated to Arab rights at the University of Haifa, and Tel Aviv University’s Refugee Rights Clinic, which was a party to three High Court of Justice petitions against amendments to the Infiltration in Israel Law that targets asylum seekers.