Fake News? Not at Hebrew University

We are an Israeli university and proud of it. We are a pluralistic university that believes in equality for all and freedom of opinion, and we’re proud of it

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Students wearing military uniform protesting Hebrew University lecturer after false reports claimed she rebuked a uniformed student, Jerusalem, January 8, 2019.
Students wearing military uniform protesting Hebrew University lecturer after false reports claimed she rebuked a uniformed student, Jerusalem, January 8, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Asher Cohen and Barak Medina

Jerusalem’s Hebrew University is a pluralistic Israeli research university. As an Israeli university, we often advise the government and state bodies. We encourage our community to take part in a range of public activities. We operate joint academic programs with the army, including two of the most prestigious ones. And yes, we play the national anthem at all major events.

As a pluralistic university, we happily admit any candidate who meets our academic standards and treat everyone with full equality, regardless of sex, religion, nationality or ethnicity. Members of our community are free to express their opinions, however provocative to much of the public, within the boundaries of the law. We operate numerous programs that aid disadvantaged individuals from all groups within society.

We live in a society where opinions have long been polarized. Ideological polarization has benefits: It clarifies and sharpens positions and in many cases leads to welcome changes. But ideological polarization can lead to emotional polarization, in which each side focuses on the information that matches its position and ignores what is perceived as contrary to it. This problem is particularly difficult when complex events are involved. Add to this the growing prevalence of “fake news,” in which the public is given false information spiced with false manipulations, and the problem is further exacerbated.

In recent months, the Hebrew University has been in the eye of the storm in three cases. In each, we adhered to the principles of Israeliness and pluralism as we confronted the challenges created by the combination of emotional polarization and fake news.

The first was when Lara Alqasem was barred from Israel as a result of her past involvement in an organization that supports boycotting Israel. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is hostile to Israel and Israeli universities and often uses false information. We fight as best we can, guided by the Israeli and pluralistic nature of our university. We welcome all students as long as they obey the law, including on boycotts. Alqasem’s admission is one way to fight BDS. Still, fake news and emotional polarization led to our being accused, preposterously, of cooperating with the movement.

The second was the absurd claim that we had made English the language of instruction at the university. Like many institutions in Israel and abroad, we are trying to make the university more international, an effort the Council for Higher Education in Israel encourages. This includes creating English-language programs and increasing our English-language course offerings. We welcome international students as part of our pluralism.

Still, as an Israeli university, most of our instruction is in Hebrew. Our international development does not in any way affect this. As in the previous case, emotional polarization plus fake news created the totally erroneous impression that we planned to stop teaching in Hebrew.

The third event, which has not yet completely subsided, was the sharing of a video showing part of a hallway conversation between a lecturer and a student, who is also a soldier in uniform. Following the release of the video, it was claimed that the lecturer does not welcome students in uniform, which is totally mistaken. Here fake news played a central role; this lecturer has always welcomed the full range of students, including soldiers in uniform, to her classroom.

This fake news, apparently created by the corrupt organization Im Tirtzu, unfortunately managed to create this false impression among large parts of the public. There was an intense domino effect that required us to take the unusual step of publishing prominent ads in major newspapers, making it clear that we have always welcomed students who are active service members, to keep this from snowballing.

Here again, emotional polarization played a major role. Far-right extremists ignored the facts and continued to make false allegations against the lecturer and the university. Unfortunately, as part of the emotional polarization, Haaretz also wrote an outrageous editorial from a different direction, in which it chose to ignore the situation and the fact that it was a sensitive event that involved both a lecturer and a student — and attacked us for ostensibly surrendering to populist public pressure and for giving the lecturer insufficient support.

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The facts are different: After investigating, we found there was no reason to take any action against the lecturer, since in her words and actions she had not meant to insult or belittle the student. We chose to apologize publicly because the student interpreted the lecturer’s behavior as offensive.

The bottom line is that we did not submit to populist pressure. We acted in accordance with the principles derived from Hebrew University being an Israeli and pluralistic university.

Let us end how we began. We are an Israeli university and proud of it. We are a pluralistic university that believes in equality for all and freedom of opinion, and we’re proud of it. It’s a complex scenario, but we will continue to act in this light.

Prof. Asher Cohen is president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Prof. Barak Medina is its rector.

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