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Hebrew University’s Two Big Disgraces

zeev sternhell
Zeev Sternhell
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Hebrew University of Jerusalem, August 2018.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, August 2018.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
zeev sternhell
Zeev Sternhell

About 10 days ago students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem declared a two-hour strike in support of the months-long struggle by a group of students and professors for the direct employment of cleaning workers at Israeli universities. Prof. Anat Zeira, who heads the university’s union of senior faculty, announced that the professors supported the strike as a sign of solidarity with the cleaning workers.

This isn’t the first time this struggle has taken place. The last Hebrew University Senate meeting I took part in before retiring, at the beginning of the previous decade, was partly dedicated to this issue. Apparently not much has changed and the university still contracts employment agencies and renounces all obligation toward its workers on the lowest rung. The students’ strike and the professors’ participation are commendable, but the fact that the students have to resort to this harsh measure reflects the university’s persistence in refusing their demand, which can’t be more justified.

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The truth is, the university’s conduct here is a disgrace despite its money-saving aspect; at an academic institution, moral and educational considerations must take precedence. Social sensitivity and setting a worthy example to students are much more valuable than financial gain, especially when it’s achieved on the backs of women and men at the bottom of the social ladder.

The economic consideration, and it alone, also appears to have led the country’s first university to compete for the army’s graces in setting up a military framework on campus. In April, the university proudly announced that it had won the bidding to run an academic excellence program for the Israel Defense Forces’ Intelligence Corps.

One would think the institution had won a bid for research funds or something against leading universities around the world. I don’t know who competed, but Tel Aviv University didn’t think it worthy to join.

It’s clear that the soldiers who take part in this program won’t come to study as regular students, as individuals, whether on the military’s behalf or in their spare time, in uniform or not, as they always have done and as they should do, so that as many young people as possible can make use of this option. The problem is that an autonomous military framework will be set up on campus and receive services from the university. It’s hard to presume that the military’s considerations are dictated by research excellence alone.

Hebrew University’s president appears to have contempt for everyone’s intelligence. I’d understand it if the university had responded to a request by the IDF to teach the next generation of intelligence officers. But to fight for this privilege, and under conditions dictated by the military? The IDF has its own demands and needs, and the main question is whose influence would be greater – the university’s on the military or vice versa? Would the freedom of teaching based on research be assured?

The university should share with the public, and above all with its students and teachers, the decisions it made and disclose the agreements, the way they will be implemented, and who will oversee their implementation.

In this context, maybe we should consider the possibility that the military needs its own academic institution, as in other countries. It doesn’t need a research university, but rather a decent two-year college whose teachers simply pass on knowledge. They would work for the military and serve its needs – and that’s exactly what a university should not do.

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