Don’t Drag Israeli Academia Into Politics

Haaretz’s editorial confused readers over the difference between a political discussion and the role of the university heads

Ariel University, in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.
Ilan Assayag

Haaretz’s lead editorial on Friday accused the university heads in Israel of “betrayal,” no less, because, according to the article, they did not protest the decision to annex the institutions of higher learning in Judea and Samaria to the Council for Higher Education in Israel.

It seems that the editorial’s writers were confused, and served to confuse their readers over the difference between a political discussion and the role of the university heads. The essence of their role is to manage the universities in Israel, to train the next generation of scientists and researchers, and to move higher education ahead.

When the writers claim that we, the university heads, “contributed to legitimizing the annexation of colleges and universities in the territories,” and “to the moral degeneration of the higher education system,” they link two subjects that should not be linked. They demonstrate exactly why the whole debate is tainted with politicization and we, as university heads, must not take part in it.

The university heads have one clear statement: Linking oversight of the institutions of the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria and those overseen by the Council for Higher Education in Israel puts at risk huge research grants from the European Union. The condition of international foundations is clear: Their funds must not be used for activities over the Green Line. This is a real danger to Israel’s academic research budgets, and it was presented and made clear to the education minister.

It is hard for us to understand why the editorial left out the fact that for months the universities fought attempts by political groups like Im Tirtzu to forcibly politicize them and the entire higher education system in Israel, and to silence opinions in academic institutions. More than once we spoke out on these issues in the struggle for diversity of opinions, open discourse and freedom of academic thought.

We find ourselves alone in this battle in the public arena. Few are the figures who stand up against draconian and bizarre legislation, against crude attempts at infiltration and the crushing of academic freedom, the demonization of the institutions and their presentation almost as hothouses for the cultivation of enemies of the state. And now, the other side of the political spectrum chooses to use a shameful term with regard to the university heads. It turns out that both political sides are accusing the universities of betrayal, unjustifiably.

Discussion of the annexation of Ariel University to the Council for Higher Education in Israel was painted in political hues from the beginning. In none of the discussions in the Knesset and the committees were arguments over academic issues even raised, and so there was no point or logic in taking part in these meetings. In contrast, we presented the relevant arguments touching on academic conduct firmly a number of times to those who needed to hear them in their professional capacity, and not as part of their political activities.

We will not agree to be a pawn in political agendas of any side of the spectrum that tries to drag us into an arena not our own. As university heads our task is to guard the flame of human knowledge so that it may continue to illuminate, and we will continue to do so.

Professor Klafter is the chairman of the Committee of University Heads and president of Tel Aviv University.