Prof. Ron Rubin left no room for interpretation about the motives for resigning his post as chairman of the Association of University Heads on Tuesday. “We are witnessing attempts to take control of science in Israel, with the aim of frightening, weakening, censoring and permitting political interests to dictate the research agenda,” he wrote in a message to faculty and students.
His resignation follows a series of statements by senior officials in the higher education system. The open battle being waged by the universities with Zeev Elkin, the cabinet minister responsible for higher education, is over the independence of academia, and nothing less. Beneath the radar while most Israelis are preoccupied by a worsening coronavirus health crisis, Elkin has been working from the moment he was appointed minister to tap faculty from Ariel University for the Council for Higher Education’s Planning and Budgeting Committee, which is responsible for an annual budget of roughly 12 billion shekels ($3.5 billion).
At the same time, he saw to it to dismiss the acting director general of the Council for Higher Education, Michal Neumann. When his attempt to appoint the rector of Ariel University to the Planning and Budgeting Committee failed (when the candidate withdrew his candidacy after questions were raised about his academic record), Elkin proposed three other candidates. All were from Ariel University, in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.
“It is clearly apparent that the minister is seeking to appoint yes-men to the Planning and Budgeting Committee and take control of this important committee,” Tel Aviv University’s president, Prof. Ariel Porat, wrote this week, warning of the politicization of the higher education system.
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In his letter, Porat noted that Ariel is “a university based on the law in Israel.” But it is known that this status was acquired thanks to a lengthy campaign waged by right-wing governments to grant additional legitimacy to the settlement enterprise. Elkin’s intention to name “a representative from Ariel” undermines the Planning and Budgeting Committee’s character as an apolitical body. In the process, the minister intends to change the internal balance of power on this important committee in favor of the right-wing government and its aspirations for annexation of the West Bank – and in favor of Ariel University, which will then be considered a university like all the other universities, even though it is not.
In the best tradition of Prime Minister Netayahu’s governments, Elkin wants to do with higher education what Miri Regev did with culture and Amir Ohana with the justice system – taking political control via distribution of resources and appointments. For Elkin, the sign of his control over institutions of higher education is first and foremost legitimizing the settlement university.
Rubin’s resignation brings the essence of the battle being waged into sharper focus. “The gatekeepers have become a target, and systems that have been standard bearers for the values of freedom of expression and freedom of thought are being attacked from morning to night,” the University of Haifa president wrote, rightly noting the various fronts that are under attack – the judiciary, culture, the media – as well as higher education.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.