Israeli University Presidents Slam Minister's Proposed Committee Appointee as 'Political'

Minister of higher education says he won’t back down from appointing professor from West Bank university to top committee despite criticism

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Higher Education and Water Resources Minister Zeev Elkin, attends a cornerstone laying ceremony, June 22, 2020.
Higher Education and Water Resources Minister Zeev Elkin, attends a cornerstone laying ceremony, June 22, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

University presidents sent a letter to Higher Education Minister Zeev Elkin on Sunday, criticizing his choice intention to appoint a representative from Ariel University, in the West Bank, to the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education without consulting the committee, as is customary.

The presidents claimed that the intended representative does not meet the minimal academic standards and that the move is being taken under extraneous motives, based on “narrow political interests.”

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They also argued that a political appointment to the committee could hamper the standing of Israel’s academic world overseas and serve the interests of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. In response, Elkin clarified that he would not yield on the appointment of his representative, Prof. Michael Zinigrad.

Last week, Elkin announced that he intends to appoint Zinigrad, who has served as a dean at the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Ariel University and as the university’s rector. He said he was doing so since Ariel University did not have a representative on the committee yet, and because his field of research, chemistry and physics, was not represented on the committee either.

By law, Elkin can appoint committee members as part of his role as head of the Council for Higher Education, but until now, it was customary for the council head to consult with university presidents regarding such appointments.

Prof. Michael Zinnigard photographed at Ariel University, August 29, 2008.Credit: Limor Edri

Elkin announced that “since the committee of university presidents had chosen not to accept Ariel University into their framework, and was therefore not representing that university, I had no choice but to turn to the president of Ariel University, Prof. Yehuda Danon, who recommended that Prof. Zinigrad be appointed to the PBC.”

The PBC has seven members, two of them public representatives and five from the higher education system. One member, Dr. Rivka Vadmani-Schaumann, represents colleges.

Last year, Prof. Yeshayahu Talmon from the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology) resigned from the committee in protest against the politicization process led by former education ministers Rafi Peretz and Naftali Bennett. Since then, no new university representative has been appointed.

Now, Elkin is seeking to replace Talmon with a representative from Ariel University. The appointment depends on the approval of the members of the Council of Higher Education, in a secret ballot, and is unlikely to pass due to the move’s opposition.

The university presidents have argued that Zinigrad’s academic status does not meet the minimal academic requirements needed for an appointment to the committee, based on the number of references to his academic articles, as well as on his H-factor, an index of the output and impact of his articles. Thus, they wrote Elkin, “it seems that you are determined to appoint someone on your behalf, a yes-man obliged to the appointing minister.”

The Planning and Budgeting Committee has an annual budget of almost 12 billion shekels ($3.5 billion). It was established 45 years ago as an independent body, that would “stand between the government and the higher education institutions in all things pertaining to budgeting for higher education,” in the words of the government decision on its establishment.

According to the university presidents, “an academic appointment made for extraneous reasons means the politicization of an independent professional committee charged with distributing funds for institutions of higher learning.”

The presidents further argued that “attempts to restrict academic freedom harm the State of Israel and the general public.”

“Weakened research directed according to the wishes of a government means science with no breakthroughs,” they added.

They warned that such an appointment could have destructive impact on negotiations over research budgets worth billions of shekels, which are expected to arrive in Israel as part of a deal called Horizon 2020, which is now taking shape.

The BDS movement and others argue that there is a direct connection between the regime and the academic world in Israel, which is an arm of the government, and therefore call for boycotting Israeli academicians, with sanctions against researchers and institutions.

“Turning the PBC into a political body will signal to them that they are right,” the presidents said.

Elkin’s associates say, “In any case, the minister’s appointee will be from Ariel University ... with someone from the world of science. ... He will not yield on this.”

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