Israel's Salaita

Professor fired by Israeli university in West Bank explains why he feels allied with the controversial scholar denied a job by the University of Illinois.

September 15, 2014
Amir Hetsroni

Amir Hetsroni might seem an unlikely academic to be fighting for a job at Ariel University. He's a communications professor who has written extensively about "Big Brother" and other reality television shows. As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he's come to believe that the occupation of the West Bank is morally unsound. Ariel is the only Israeli university in the occupied Palestinian territories -- and its elevation to university status was opposed by many Israel academics (including university leaders) who feared Ariel would cut into their budgets and bolster support for the movement abroad to boycott Israel universities.

Nonetheless, in 2009, Hetsroni landed a job at Ariel and taught there until he was fired this month. The university has said that he was fired for posting comments on Facebook that questioned the university's process for handling complaints of sexual harassment. The university maintains that his comments -- which questioned whether allegations were always accurate -- were insulting to women and inappropriate for a professor.

But that case has languished and been questioned by labor courts in Israel and had been on hold until this month. Then, after Hetsroni published two articles highly critical of Ariel University and the government's treatment of Palestinians, he was promptly fired.

Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper where Hetsroni published his articles, has written that his dismissal took place "in apparent contravention of university regulations as well as a ruling by a labor court on the case" in that Hetsroni was never given a chance to answer allegations made against him.

So how did Hetsroni get to a point where he introduces himself to Americans as "Israel's Salaita"? He is referring, of course, to the professor whose hiring by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was blocked, first by the chancellor, and then last week by the university system's board over comments on social media criticized by many as lacking in civility -- a charge that his defenders say should not limit his academic freedom.

In an email interview, Hetsroni described the evolution of his views and how he came to be seeking advice from Salaita, whom he praised as "very helpful." (Ariel officials did not respond to a request for comment, but they have insisted that there is full academic freedom at their institution and that Hetsroni was not fired over his views.)

Why take a job at Ariel in the first place, knowing that it was founded with strong backing from the Israeli settlers' movement that does not want to give up any land to the Palestinians?

"I have utility bills to pay and I need work," Hetsroni said. He had been teaching at Yezreel Valley College (a teaching-oriented institution) and wanted to move to a university. There were few openings at universities other than Ariel. Hetsroni said that the growth of Ariel has lured people like himself and, he says, colleagues, who would have preferred to teach at Hebrew University of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv University, but couldn't find openings at those institutions, which have been struggling with tight budgets while Ariel has been well-supported.

Between 2009 and today, Hetsroni said, his views changed and the context in Israeli society changed. "The chances for peace with the Palestinians seemed much higher than they seem now, and many people (myself included) believed that the settlements and the campus in Ariel were just a temporary arrangement that would soon be replaced by sustained peace wherein either Ariel would be evacuated (and the campus would move to Israel) or Ariel would be leased from the Palestinians. I did not think at that point of time that the occupation was to stay and stay ... and stay," he said.

Further, he said, his views changed in part because he was exposed to Palestinians -- not at Ariel, but getting to and from there every workday. "When I started working there I was by all means not infatuated with the occupation but I did not see it as a severe problem," he said. "My view changed because driving to work through Palestinian villages can yield only one conclusion.... We must leave these territories that are heavily populated by another nation that wants and deserves to be independent. It is easier not to think about that when you don't drive to work through these villages (and many Israelis are oblivious to the occupation because they rarely visit the territories)."

In August Hetsroni published two articles in Haaretz reflecting those views (but noting that he was writing individually and not on behalf of Ariel). Both were harshly critical of the role of Ariel and other settler institutions as obstacles to peace with the Palestinians.

In one piece, he wrote about how Ariel attracts people like himself (and also students), turning Israelis who might not support the occupation into de facto agents of occupation. In another, he said that Israeli universities' (and especially Ariel's) hostility to criticism of the Israel military actions in Gaza was making it more difficult to fight against international boycotts of Israeli universities. He noted that Israeli universities have reprimanded Arab students who made Facebook posts joking about the kidnappings of three settler teens (who were found killed). And he noted that in 2012, the chancellor of Ariel said that Israeli universities should not accept as students any who are not loyal to the State of Israel.

In the interview, Hetsroni said he viewed boycotts of universities as wrong if imposed for political reasons (in this case for the occupation), but as possibly justified if related to academic reasons (such as an erosion of academic freedom). His supporters in Israel and elsewhere say that his dismissal -- so soon after he spoke out against Ariel and government policies -- suggests that academic freedom is endangered at Ariel.

Hetsroni said that while "there are problems here and there in other universities, in no [Israeli] university is the situation is as dire as it is in Ariel. Not even close." He added: "Still, I don't tell people what to do about Ariel; I only say that in Ariel University there is no freedom of expression, that there is severe limitation of academic freedom (anti-Zionist scholarship is out of question), and that faculty and students are prevented from expressing certain views which are absolutely legal. These are the facts; what to do about them is matter of individual decision."

The op-eds that Hetsroni wrote (behind the Haaretz paywall) are strongly worded, in the model that one would find from American and Israeli professors with a range of views. His op-eds, however, lack the invective of Salaita's Twitter feed. (Hetsroni is not on Twitter.) He said that his tone is indeed different, but that he is embracing the title of "Israel's Salaita" because of the American professor's fame and because "both of us are discriminated against because of our political views."


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