Have Israel's Universities Become Schools for Collaborators?

As long as the universities seek to preserve neutrality and impart that to their students, they will not inculcate true leadership.

Carolina Landsmann
Carolina Landsmann
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National Library at Hebrew University.
National Library at Hebrew University. Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Carolina Landsmann
Carolina Landsmann

Early this month the dean of students of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Prof. Yehuda Shavit, sent a letter to students in response to “instances of illegal political activities by a group of students.” The communication followed a demonstration that was held by leftist student groups without a permit. Shavit wrote that the university summoned the Border Police when the protesters refused to identify themselves to campus security officers or to disperse. He stressed that the recurrence of unauthorized activities could lead to the prohibition of all such public activities on campus.

The Hebrew University has to ask itself some pointed questions. For example, how is it possible that activity “not in keeping with regulations” justifies summoning the Border Police? One might also wonder under what moral code is it more important to preserve academic freedom — that is, universities’ political neutrality — than to lead, or at least allow, the emergence of a movement that would oppose the oppressive Israeli regime.

The resistance to Argentina’s dictatorship, which suffered a death blow on the “Night of the Long Batons,” in 1966, when armed forces entered the University of Buenos Aires; France’s student revolution in May 1968; American opposition to the Vietnam War – all these are examples of opposition to government injustice that was born on college campuses. From where will such resistance emerge, if not from there? Now that organized labor has been crushed and is not producing new leaders, the universities are the only hope, the place where we could expect the spirit of resistance to create a new leadership. But where is our “Danny the Red,” who led the student resistance in France? Our Danny is finishing up his M.B.A. at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya’s Arison School of Business.

When the IDC explains that “leaders aren’t born, they’re made,” it’s important to ask what leadership means to them and how their concept of leadership is congruent with the demand that universities be apolitical. This question is valid with regard to all the universities training the next generation of national leaders, and particularly the Hebrew University, which rushed to suppress a political awakening on its campus.

In Israel no true leadership is possible unless it emerges from opposition to the occupation and the economics derived from it. As long as the universities seek to preserve neutrality and impart that to their students, they will never be more than schools for collaborators.

As with all bad regimes throughout history, there is no way to live under a bad government without inheriting its moral stain unless one rebels against it. All the relevant mechanisms must be questioned – the army and the settlements, of course, but no less the economy, the justice system, the media, the education system and the universities, science, art and even basketball.

Historical comparisons between Israel and dark regimes; wondering if the Israeli occupation is the result of an ideological mechanism or a vestige of colonialism, or even a tool in an American imperialist game – it doesn’t matter which you choose, but we must accept that a historic responsibility derives from that choice of reference. We must ask ourselves who we are in all this. Are we prepared to oppose the regime and pay the price, or in the end are we collaborators?

With this in mind, there’s no reason to be surprised by the Hebrew University’s decision to make additional cuts in the Faculty of Humanities; one can view this move as another step in its battle against its own politicization. How much support could we expect for a faculty that encourages critical thinking and inculcates values in its students that transcend commercial value, from a university whose administration puts its regulations above a struggle for justice?

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