Opinion

‘University Cartel’? Oh Please

The education minister is well aware that he cannot claim credit for the democratization of higher education in Israel. It started long before him, with the establishment of public colleges throughout the country

Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, October 15, 2017.
Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP

“We’ve broken the cartel of the universities,” boasted Naftali Bennett at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, which coincided with the start of the academic year. The education minister was referring to his success in obtaining approval for the new medical school at Ariel University, for the former college’s accreditation as a university instead of a college and for the establishment of a Ph.D. program at the International Disciplinary Center in Herzliya.

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A great success, indeed. Ostensibly, the means by which Bennett effected his “revolution” — bypassing the accepted protocol for establishing and accrediting new programs — are justified by their democratic ends: Students can choose from a wider range of degree-granting institutions, some of them outside of the rigid guild structure of the ivory tower.

But the education minister is well aware that he cannot claim credit for the democratization of higher education in Israel. It started long before him, with the establishment of public colleges throughout the country that opened their doors to tens of thousands of young people, offering undergraduate and sometimes graduate degrees as well, notwithstanding the initial scorn and resistance of the “university cartel.”

Herzliya’s IDC introduced a new component to Israeli academia, a degree worth its weight in gold that certainly cannot serve as a model for the democratization of higher education. Ariel University in the West Bank — which could have been built instead in Carmiel or Nazareth, for example, was meant to serve a different purpose: institutionalizing Israeli control in the territories, no matter the academic cost.

Meanwhile, the “cartel” that Bennett so despises remains intact. It may have become more vulnerable, but it still determines Israel’s international academic standing. It still dictates the nature and quality of academic research, and it will continue to be the yardstick by which higher education in the country is measured, regardless of the education minister’s feelings about it.

>> Read more: At Dedication of West Bank Medical School, Bennett Decries Israeli University ‘Cartel’

But Bennett is not the only threat to the international standing of higher education in Israel. For some years now, the heads of the country’s universities have been spineless in their dealings with the government. They failed in their fight against the medical school in Ariel. They submissively accepted IDC’s new status. They meekly acceded to the demand for a code of ethics that includes opposition to a boycott of Israel and prohibiting lecturers from expressing a political view in a “misleading” manner. They avoid granting senior academic appointments to professors who give off too strong a whiff of “leftism,” they keep human-rights organizations out of their campuses and issue detailed directives for how to address “politically problematic subjects” in the classroom. You call this a powerful cartel?

But then came this bombshell: The university heads mustered the gumption to send a letter to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan about Lara Alqasem, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem graduate student who was refused entry and has been detained at Ben-Gurion International Airport since October 2. They say the detention hurts Israeli academia and that the harm it causes outweighs the benefit. Wow, how bold.

But a closer look at the letter sent by Prof. Yosef Klafter, the president of Tel Aviv University, on behalf of the “cartel,” shows that the university heads have an agreement with Erdan for “prior consultation” any time there is a desire to block the entry of someone “connected with the call for a boycott and delegimitization” of Israel.

Klafter writes that he “is not going to go into the reasons that led to the young woman’s detention,” but points out that “no consultation about her occurred between people from your ministry and the Hebrew University. Even after she was detained, no contact was made with the academic institution regarding this matter.”

In other words — this isn’t how friends treat one another, Mr. Erdan. You can detain, but just don’t surprise us. You can expel, but have some courtesy when you do it. It’s this same courtesy that is allowing Bennett to shape Israeli academia while its leaders go on blithely thinking this is nothing to get too worked up about.