An Insult to the Word 'University'

Who can doubt that Ariel's 'college,' plunked down in the middle of a population denied the elementary rights of citizens for 45 years, is an insult to the word 'university' in the same way that universities in all other authoritarian dictatorships are?

Bernard Avishai
Bernard Avishai
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Bernard Avishai
Bernard Avishai

"Discussion must not be on a political-ideological basis" - so wrote Manuel Trajtenberg, the head of the Council for Higher Education's budget committee, in a memo arguing against the upgrading of the College of Judea and Samaria to a university. One had rather to look at the process: Should the recommending committee also be the deciding committee?; at the panel's standards: Are its members impartial and world-class?; and at resources: Does the government have the funds to start another university without harming existing institutions? By bringing politics into the decision, Trajtenberg insists, you "fatally harm academia."

Trajtenberg is a fine man and a political economist of stature. His specific objections are reasonable, though existing universities are always afraid that starting some new institution will mean too much water in the wine. And his allusion to political ideology governing this decision was obviously meant to point, gently, to the Likudishness of this decision. The education and finance ministers' elevation of the college in Ariel would have been unthinkable were they not intent on integrating "Judea and Samaria" into Israel.

Nevertheless, Trajtenberg's rejection of the "political" in this decision is an example of why liberals wince at the mention of "technocrat." Trajtenberg defends the CHE by debasing the very idea of a university.

At bottom, universities are the most perfect products, and most important custodians, of liberal-democratic standards, of what liberals used to call "civilization." Academic freedom is an idealization of political liberty. The classroom is a microcosm of nonviolent settlement of disputes, a frame that valorizes tolerance.

These standards are the basic conditions for science to proceed. As the University of Chicago's most famous president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, once put it: "The object of the educational system, taken as a whole, is not to produce hands for industry or to teach the young how to make a living. It is to produce responsible citizens." Universities, he added, are not technology factories. You can't have the technology without first having the science, and you can't have the science without enabling critical thinking. The key is to induce students to think for themselves. This means ordinary human rights for all, scientific doubt, a rejection of all orthodoxy and dogma.

My point, of course, is that you cannot have a university in a place where human rights are extended only to a minority privileged by religion or race or other discriminatory law - well, you can, but then the university is pathetic by definition. I have been to a university in Gadhafi's Libya. I have been to a university in Beijing. They are not universities, but at best retailers of technical literature developed at real universities in Western democracies.

Who can doubt that Ariel's "college," plunked down in the middle of a population denied the elementary rights of citizens for 45 years, is an insult to the word "university" in the same way that universities in all other authoritarian dictatorships are? Why, or to please whom, will Trajtenberg refuse to say so?

Dr. Eyal Levin, who teaches in the Ariel college program called "Israel in the Middle East," inadvertently proves my point, by putting the following defensive, pitiable apologia on his page on the Ariel website: "The most surprising thing to me ... in the department is the pluralism of views, from left to right ... I get raised eyebrows when I say this to my colleagues elsewhere, as if I am giving them wishful thinking rather than reality ..." and so forth.

Given the context, does anyone doubt why Levin feels impelled to write this? But then, what does pluralism mean to him? In the "Israel in the Middle East" program, would one hear from educated Palestinians from Ramallah speaking about their despair over the possibility of there being two states, and their demand instead for either enfranchisement as full citizens or the application of international law, which considers the college, like all Israeli building in the occupied territories, illegal?

Of course not. Those Palestinians are not in Levin's class, though a good number of Israeli Arabs (very few from the territories) study for degrees in engineering and other technical fields at Ariel. Meanwhile, Palestinian universities are starved of talent, because residency in the territories is so difficult to secure for diaspora Palestinians or erstwhile residents who've been abroad for more than seven years.

The pluralism Levin is speaking about, in other words, is carried by students, and embodied in standards, that pass through to Ariel from more democratic Israel on the other side of the Green Line. And Levin has the temerity to end his entry by complaining that this imported pluralism exists only in Ariel - that is, "in absolute contradiction to other universities, where your chances of getting a position depend on how you answer the question of your political views." Really. As if proof of one's pluralism is tolerating the legal expressions of intolerance that are part and parcel of the occupation.

In crisis, Yeats writes, "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." The intensity of the Levins can be taken for granted. What is "fatally harming" our democracy, hence, the dignity of our academies, is the mumbling of the Trajtenbergs. I, for one, will not step foot on the Ariel campus.

Bernard Avishai is visiting professor of government at Dartmouth, adjunct professor of business at the Hebrew University, and author, most recently, of "Promiscuous: 'Portnoy's Complaint' and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness."



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