A few weeks after he began serving as minister for higher education and water resources, Zeev Elkin marked his target: curbing the independence of Israeli academia. During a visit last week to Ariel University, in the eponymous West Bank settlement, he promised its leaders he would appoint, for the first time, a representative from the institution to the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education in Israel. One way to do this would be to reduce the number of committee members chosen by the universities in Israel from three to two and placing Ariel’s representative in the vacated slot.
By appointing “one of ours,” Elkin hopes to weaken the research universities’ standing on the committee, which is responsible for allocating funding to the higher education system. This step would politicize one of the last institutions in Israel that still tries to act in a statesmanlike fashion and take a broad view of academic needs and resources. But to Elkin, such qualities are a joke, “defects” that must quickly be corrected.
Political meddling in higher education is nothing new. Former Education Minister Naftali Bennett tried to stifle professional criticism of the plan to open a medical school at Ariel, and a crony of his on the committee supported the move despite her conflict of interest. Former Education Minister Rafi Peretz decided not to renew the tenure of another committee member for fear that he would vote against Ariel, and he rejected the candidacy of Ben-Gurion University’s former president, Prof. Rivka Carmi, for similar reasons.
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The committee controls an annual budget of almost 12 billion shekels ($3.5 billion). It was set up 45 years ago as an independent body that “would stand between the government and institutions of higher education on all issues relating to funding for higher education,” as the cabinet resolution establishing it said. For many years, the committee was protected from government interference. This protection is vital to free thought and independent conduct. But a series of right-wing education ministers, from Gideon Sa’ar to Bennett and Peretz, disdained this principle. To them, academia is an enemy that must be humiliated and defeated. Now Elkin seeks to make his own contribution.
It’s not easy to withstand an assault like the one the right has waged for years now by means of education ministers and thuggish right-wing organizations like Im Tirtzu. Nevertheless, the Planning and Budgeting Committee – and the broader academic world – still has members who try to do their work with no political considerations.
The freedom to conduct research and voice skepticism rests in part on budgetary freedom. Placing cronies on the professional committee that determines the universities’ budgets is like wielding a whip that threatens academia’s independence.
Nor is it an accident that the agent holding this whip is Ariel University. The goal is to subordinate academia to the project of the denial of the occupation and the dissemination of ultranationalism.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.