Straddling the Line

Hebrew U. of Jerusalem, although closely associated with the State of Israel, spends a lot of time fighting with its government.

January 9, 2009

JERUSALEM -- A framed portrait of Albert Einstein enjoys pride of place above the president’s desk at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Einstein was among the founders of Hebrew, serving on its first board of governors and delivering the university's inaugural science lecture.

Menachem Magidor, the president of Israel’s flagship institution of higher learning, admits that he could use the insight of Einstein — if not the wisdom of Solomon — as he tries to steer Hebrew through some of the choppiest political waters in its history.

For more than 80 years, since its establishment a quarter-century before the founding of Israel, the university has tried to reflect the values of a modern, secular Jewish state. But along with its many achievements along the way, including a half-dozen Nobel prizes awarded in this decade to scholars who have or had affiliations with the university, Hebrew University has found itself drawn into some of the stickier realities of maintaining day-to-day academic life for its 23,000 students (about 450 of whom are American) and 1,300 faculty members in one of the world’s most security-conscious nations.

“Finding the right balance in these things,” says Magidor with a thin smile, “continues to be something of a struggle.”

Israel’s ever-fraught security situation has been receiving fresh attention from the international news media this month as a result of the warplanes and troops pounding targets in Gaza. And the fighting hasn't gone unnoticed among academics in North America. Israel's actions prompted signs and criticism at December's Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association. In Canada, a union that represents graduate and research assistants is calling for a boycott of Israel professors who don't condemn their government's actions in Gaza. And at the Hebrew University campus, Jewish and Arab students clashed on Tuesday at competing rallies over the fighting in Gaza.

While some of the debate in the United States over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict suggests monolithic sides, Hebrew University is an example of the way academics in Israel frequently clash with their own government, often on behalf of Palestinians.

In July, Hebrew played cause célèbre for an unprecedented public protest by Israel’s Council of University Presidents over what the organization described in a letter to Defense Minister Ehud Barak as the “blatant and harmful intervention on the part of military elements in considerations that are strictly academic” by the country’s security chiefs. “Since its inception the state of Israel has adamantly upheld the tradition of academic freedom," the barons of the country’s seven universities continued, and "we expect the security establishment to preserve this tradition and deal solely with security-related matters.”

The letter was sent in protest at the barring of many students, particularly Palestinians, from taking security-sensitive programs and the like, or -- in many cases -- enrolling at any of Israel’s colleges at all. It was spurred in part by the ongoing case -- still unresolved -- involving a doctoral student whose legal quest to study at Hebrew has dragged on since 2006.

In the latest turn, Sawsan Salameh, the West Bank resident who originally won a scholarship to study chemistry at Hebrew but was later banned by the army from entering the country, was eventually granted a six-month permit to attend classes after the Supreme Court struck down the earlier ruling. The university continues to lobby for her case to be allowed a fuller period of doctoral study.

It could be months until the Salameh saga is finally resolved. In the meantime, Hebrew has also found itself publicly embroiled in another security-related tempest that, while receiving little media attention outside the country’s Hebrew-language press, has seen its relationship with the defense establishment even more sorely tested.

In the recent dispute, it was revealed that Hebrew’s administration came to loggerheads with Yuval Diskin, the head of the country’s internal security agency, over what the Shin Bet head later described as the university’s “haughty and disparaging” decision to abruptly bag a special-study program that would have awarded a humanities degree to Shin Bet members in just 16 months. The fast-track degree was partly in acknowledgment of the members’ known work in providing security to the university.

The argument was far from being, as it were, merely academic. In 2002, Hebrew worked closely with the Shin Bet after a devastating bomb attack later claimed by the militant group Hamas ripped through the university’s Frank Sinatra Café, killing seven students, including three Americans, and injuring scores more. And while the university has been spared from any other terrorist attacks in the intervening years, it has not been for lack of trying, Magidor says, confirming that “several other attempts” have been foiled since the initial incident.

“We do appreciate what Shabak does for us and the importance of the security service,” he continues, using the Israeli acronym for Shin Bet. “But we also appreciate the necessity of academic standards, the lowering of which is not, in our view, the best way for us to express our appreciation for the good work that the security services provide.

“Here again, we tried to find the right balance. We try to maintain an open, free campus for all students — Palestinian, Arab, Buddhist, Hindu, whatever — unless we are convinced there are very concrete reasons why a particular student should have their freedom impinged upon. And that’s how it should remain.”

Simmering beneath these issues, of course, are the various proposals that have been made by academics and organizations, mainly British, to freeze out Israeli universities in order to force a change in their government’s own security policies towards the Palestinians.

The European attitude toward an academic embargo goes back and forth; in 2007, Britain’s University and College Union called off its planned boycott, but the issue was raised again last summer when the union voted for a motion, also later rescinded, to reconsider the boycott and dispatch its own delegation to the Palestinian-populated territories and use the testimonies it gathered to “promote a wide discussion of the appropriateness of continued educational links with Israeli academic institutions.”

In any event, Magidor doubts he has heard the last word on the matter. A joint statement co-signed by him and Sari Nusseibeh, the president of nearby Al-Quds University, calling upon “academics here and worldwide to act in support of our mission, as one which might allow for ending our shared tragedy rather than prolonging it,” is accordingly handed across the table.

“It’s an outrageous thing,” he says indignantly. The fact that the independent universities of Israel alone have been singled out for academic disinvestment “cannot be explained by any other term – and I’m usually very careful when it comes to this one — than anti-Semitism.” What, he asks rhetorically, would be made of a similar movement to sever ties with American or British institutions on account of the policies of their countries respective administrations?

“Nobody would even dream of it, let alone actually attempting to boycott. The fact that a different standard has been used is because it’s Israel they’re talking about.”


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