Betrayal of the University Heads and the Blurring of the Green Line

Another brick has been added to the creeping annexation project by placing three academic institutions in the territories under the Council for Higher Education

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett in February 20, 2018
Ilan Assayag

Another brick was recently added to the creeping annexation project led by the Habayit Hayehudi party, in the form of placing three academic institutions in the territories under the Council for Higher Education, which is responsible for such institutions inside Israel. The law’s sponsors are proud of it, because it’s meant to advance the imposition of Israeli sovereignty on the territories. The universities were silent over this measure, which blurs the distinction between the two sides of the Green Line. Their fear of the right is so great that the Committee of University Heads decided to downplay its opposition as much as possible.

In its scientific cooperation agreement with the European Union (Horizon 2020), which provides substantial amounts of funding to Israeli researchers, Israel promised to maintain the separation between academic institutions in Israel and those over the Green Line. Eliminating the distinction between sovereign Israel and the territories endangers this important financial support.

The Committee of University Heads said this week that its position “was clearly presented to the education minister, including the negative financial implications, i.e., putting hundreds of millions of dollars in international support at risk” (Or Kashti, February 28). But by failing to take any action, the university heads betrayed their professional and public obligations. Their weak self-justification, which mainly evinces a paralyzing fear of the government, is unacceptable.

Their explanation of their decision not to engage in public action is no less worrying: Because “the public debate has become completely political, the universities cannot take part in it.” This explanation indicates that the war the right has been waging on higher education — from campaigns by Im Tirtzu to Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s proposed code of ethics for — is bearing fruit.

In internal discussions, several university presidents said they didn’t think they had the power to stop the law, and they feared Bennett’s reaction. Indeed, success wasn’t guaranteed, and certainly not in the current oppressive political climate. But that’s also the test of a leadership that isn’t preoccupied with short-term cost-benefit calculations or fears of reduced donations.

The heads of Israel’s academic institutions chose to exercise their right to remain silent rather than their duty to raise an outcry. They thereby contributed to legitimizing the annexation of colleges and universities in the territories, and also to the moral degeneration of the higher education system.

But it’s not too late for them to come to their senses. Academia’s role in society is too important for it to continue to appease the government.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.