Hebrew University Accused of ‘Abandoning’ Lecturer Facing Threats

After false media reports that the lecturer had taken a female student to task for coming to class in an army uniform, the university issued a statement saying that it ‘warmly supports the right of students and faculty to come dressed as they please’

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File Photo: Hebrew University campus, Jerusalem.
File Photo: Hebrew University campus, Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Hebrew University was accused by some of its faculty members of “abandoning” a university lecturer after it expressed regret on Monday over what it called an “unusual incident” between the lecturer and a female student who came to class in military uniform.

The lecturer, Carola Hilfrich, of the General and Comparative Literature Department, was subject to threats after inaccurate reports that she had reprimanded the student for coming to class wearing the uniform.

“We support the right of all the students and all of the faculty to come dressed as they please,” said the university’s statement, which was issued on behalf of its president, Asher Cohen, and the chairwoman of the university student union, Shir Mordechai.

Hebrew University and the student union warmly support any student and soldier, male or female, studying at the university during their regular army service, in the reserves, or in the special joint programs run by the university and the army or other defense institutions,” the statement added.

Contrary to original media reports, it was actually the student who initiated the discussion with Hilfrich about the student’s uniform, according to both an inquiry by the university and interviews conducted by Haaretz with five other students who were in the lecture hall at the time. In addition, there was no argument or discussion of the issue during the class itself.

Carola HilfrichCredit: daat-hamakom

Nevertheless, Hilfrich will not be teaching in the near future due to the threats she has received. The media reports sparked a surge of hate mail directed at Hilfrich, and the university also received calls for her dismissal and explicit threats to her life.

According to a letter sent Tuesday to students in the soldier's cultural studies program, the soldier told the director of the program, Dr. Nicole Hochner, that she had implored the person who took the video of her not to make it public.

Last week, Kan public television broadcast a recording in which Hilfrich is heard telling the student-soldier: “You can’t be naive and expected to be treated like a civilian when you are dressed in military uniform. You’re a soldier in the Israeli army, and you’ll be treated accordingly.” Later, the Ynet website published a video clip of the conversation.

According to these reports, Hilfrich initiated the conversation to reprimand the student after another student, an Arab woman, commented on her uniform. But the university’s inquiry found that it was the soldier who initiated the conversation with Hilfrich after class because she was upset by the Arab student’s comments. The video clip also shows that Hilfrich tried to end the conversation and leave, at which point the student said, “I have other issues [to discuss].”

All five students who spoke to Haaretz said the soldier frequently attends class in uniform, but this has never caused any comment or conflict. “She’s been in uniform since the first class, but nobody ever said anything to her about it during or after class,” one said.

“The university is meticulous about treating everyone on campus in an appropriate and respectful manner.”

Members of Hebrew University’s academic staff, however, were angered by the university’s statement, because it implied that Hilfrich had indeed done something wrong and said nothing in the lecturer’s defense.

“This statement constitutes the ugly abandonment of a colleague in the face of a dangerous campaign,” wrote Prof. David Enoch of the law faculty and philosophy department. “It does not even include a single word about the fact that this was a well-orchestrated campaign of lies.”

Prof. Anat Zeira, who heads the university’s senior faculty union, wrote, “From the statement issued by the university it emerges that it didn’t conduct a thorough examination of the event. The need for such an examination is crucial not just in any case in which a faculty member is accused of something, but especially in such a serious case, whose resonance is a reflection of the deterioration of public discourse and the implied threat to freedom of expression and academic freedom.”

Cohen tried to explain the decision behind the statement. “Paradoxically, although we have always been a university that nurtured students who are active soldiers, an impression was created that we are against them. Unjustified damage was caused to us. We wanted to remove that perception from the agenda.” Clarifying the facts of the incident in the statement, he said, would have caused that message to be lost. “We didn’t want to dilute the primary message,” he said.

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