Decision on West Bank campus made despite opposition by Israel’s Council for Higher Education
[See also Dahlia Scheindlin’s report and comment on +972]
Tilila Nesher, 17 July 2012
The Judea and Samaria Council for Higher Education has decided on Tuesday to recognize the Ariel University Center as a full-fledged university. The planning and budget committee of the state’s Council for Higher Education had recommended against the move.
The decision was approved by 11 members of the committee, while only two opposed it.
Hundreds of left-wing activists protested outside committee meeting, which took place at Bar Ilan University. Meretz party leader Zahava Gal-On said that granting university status to the academic center would “bring about academic boycotts of Israel.”
“The Judea and Samaria Council for Higher Education, which excels in ‘occupation studies,’ has brought Israel to a moral low point by establishing an institution on stolen land which forbids those whose land was stolen to enter through its gates.”
On Sunday, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz announced he was “paving the way” for the establishment of the first university in the West Bank by making use of “special funding.” Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar sent a letter to the chairman of the Judea and Samaria higher education council expressing his support for transforming the Ariel institute into a university.
Sa’ar expressed his support for the move although he is chairman of the state’s Council for Higher Education, which opposed the move. The 15-member Judea and Samaria education panel was established in 1997 after the state’s council refused to discuss issues involving academics in the territories. As the highest authority in the territories, the law establishing the council was signed by the commander of the Israel Defense Force’s Central Command. It states that members of the council are to be appointed by the head of Central Command, either from current or past members of the state’s Council for Higher Education.
The military commander is the final authority governing decisions by the Judea and Samaria education council, which will be the case with its decision regarding the Ariel University Center. Following political moves to annul the recommendations of the state Council for Higher Education’s planning and budget committee, the committee’s chairman, Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, sent a memo to the chairman of the Judea and Samaria education council, Prof. Amos Altshuler, outlining why he believes that panel lacks the legitimacy to decide whether to recognize the Ariel institute as a university.
In the memo, which Haaretz has obtained, Trajtenberg said the panel was tainted by conflict of interest and did not meet the standard of academic scrutiny upheld in Israel and abroad. “Discussion must not be on a political-ideological basis,” Trajtenberg said, adding that this would “fatally harm academia.” “The very question as to whether the Ariel University Center is worthy/should receive recognition as a university, when asked in a manner unconnected to a broader context (planning, economics, etc. ) is very problematic and reflects at best longing for a long-gone earlier time – At worst it is a purposeful and serious deviation from an egalitarian and fair basis,” Trajtenberg wrote to Altshuler.
Trajtenberg continued that it was inconceivable that “such an essential decision be discussed and made by a body in charge of one general institution of higher education (and two teachers colleges ) out of 67 institutions [of higher learning in Israel], in which only three percent of all students are enrolled.”
Trajtenberg also pointed out that the panel which recommended the Ariel institute’s transition to a university had not been properly constituted. “In Israel, because of its small size, such committees must in almost every case consist of experts from abroad who it may be proven do not have connections to the areas under scrutiny in Israel.”
The fact that Altshuler himself had headed the panel, Trajtenberg said, “meant that there was no separation between the recommending committee (the panel ) and the body charged with deciding on the recommendation,” referring to the Judea and Samaria Council for Higher Education.
Trajtenberg gave as an example the possibility of establishing a medical school in Safed. “The question was not whether Bar-Ilan University (or any other institution ) would establish a medical school of its own, even if it very much wanted to, but whether the State of Israel needed another medical school. In the end, Bar-Ilan was indeed chosen, but whether before or after the fact is critical.”
Trajtenberg went on to ask: “Is it conceivable that any institution demand that it be determined whether it is ‘worthy’ of establishing an excellent center in some realm, without the above-mentioned process, without studying the need and conducting a competition? Should public money be spent in this way? Should limited resources, human and material, be used in this way?”
Trajtenberg pointed out in the document that the panel had used “only a number of narrow academic standards” and that it had “relied almost solely on materials generated by the Ariel University Center and its progress reports.”
Trajtenberg criticized Steinitz’s transfer of earmarked funds to the institution to further its recognition as a university. “These funds are nowhere near the amount required to fund a university,” Trajtenberg argued.
He added that the transfer of these funds could impinge on the funding of the rest of the country’s universities and colleges. Trajtenberg said the question was not the academic qualifications of the panel’s members, which he did not doubt, but “the mandate of the committee from the outset, and the manner of its work in light of this.”
A member of the panel, Israel Prize laureate Prof. Daniel Sperber, said he was both hurt and angered by Trajtenberg’s letter. He said that six members of the committee were “at least Israel Prize laureates, not people new to scientific scrutiny.” Sperber said “to say we did not do real work is very insulting. I don’t know what his motives are, but he had a whole year, it is in poor taste, you do not leave such a thing to the day before the decision.” Sperber said the Ariel University Center was a “magnificent institution despite the hostility toward it from certain groups.”
The committee of university heads responded that “any additional budgets should have been given to the existing research universities which have been starved for funding for years.” The Ariel University Center responded that Trajtenberg’s actions “served only the monopoly of the university heads,” and that it was Trajtenberg who was guilty of a conflict of interest. The Ariel institute also said the panel appointed by the Judea and Samaria education council had acted with Trajtenberg’s approval and that “its report proves beyond all doubt that we meet and exceed every academic requirement set for us and so it recommended recognizing us as a university.”
The university center also said Trajtenberg’s “actions were in opposition to cabinet decisions, the opinion of the deputy attorney general, to the recommendations of the Council for Higher Education and to the national interest in encouraging higher education in Israel.”
Meanwhile, Altshuler informed the 16th member of the council, National Student Union chairman and social protest leader Itzik Shmuli, that he would not be allowed to vote, because the necessary details about him were mistakenly not passed on for approval to Israel’s military commander in the West Bank, which oversees the council. In response, the National Student Union said it was concerned that Shmuli’s right to vote had been revoked because Shmuli had not stated ahead of time how he would vote, as had other members of the council.
Dahlia Scheindlin, 17 July 2012
Blithely ignoring a bitter academic and political controversy, the Committee for Higher Education (CHE) in Judea and Samaria voted Tuesday evening to grant the Ariel University Center of Samaria (also referred to as Ariel College) the status of a fully accredited university. After a few more formalities, the West Bank institute, established in 1982, is expected to be accredited beginning this autumn.
Along with the Ariel Cultural Center, this decision drives home Israel’s permanence in the West Bank. It also represents the bizarre military takeover of academia – since formally the IDF commander of the Central Command, the highest authority in the West Bank, has to approve the accreditation. For those who have never lived under occupation, there has rarely been a policy move that looked and felt so much like the actions of a military regime. Further, the new University will surely cater exclusively to Israeli citizens, as it does today. In other words, within the West Bank, it serves the minority and dismisses the majority – call that what you will.
As the school celebrated – animated fireworks burst cheerily on its website – a wide range of outraged public figures lashed out on both political and professional grounds. Earlier this year one thousand professors signed a letter opposing the move, concerned about the inability to fund Israel’s seven existing, cash-starved universities. Remarkably, the head of the Weizmann Institute of Science said that he would boycott the college should recognition be approved, Haaretz reported. To face down this opposition, Finance Minister announced that he had personally earmarked NIS 100 million for the college so that the money would not come from the education budget. “He set that money aside some time ago,” said Beni Reuven Levy, Dean of the School of Architecture, proudly, in a phone interview Tuesday evening. It’s hard to imagine where that money did come from.
Manuel Trajtenberg, the erstwhile government emissary to the J14 protest, is the chairman of the government’s Budget and Planning Committee. He was so incensed at what he viewed as a purely political move devoid of all pretenses of professionalism, that he sent an angry memo to the head of CHE-Judea/Samaria, attacking its legitimacy and writing that the move would “fatally harm academia,” according to Haaretz.
Even the regular Committee for Higher Education opposed recognition. Luckily for the college, CHE’s authority does not extend to the West Bank. The Committee for Higher Education of Judea and Samaria was established in 1997 and stepped in handily. Education Minister Gidon Saar of Likud also gave the CHE-J/S full and public support.
Reporters from state-run media outlets could barely contain their excitement, treating the news as a sweeping national drama. “The Center has been waiting for this for years,” crowed the announcer on Reshet B radio, explaining without a trace of irony that the drive for recognition goes all the way back to 2005.
Dean Levy of the School of Architecture was in a very magnanimous mood Tuesday evening. He brushed aside accusations that the school is an exclusive institution for the ruling minority in the area: “It is 100 percent incorrect to say that.” He described the vast diversity of the student body, noting that the college has the highest percentage of Arabs of all Israeli schools, including some from East Jerusalem and surrounding villages. They all have blue Israeli ID cards. Palestinians? “The university is open to people from other places, but none of them ever applied. We assume that it’s because they are afraid of their neighbors, or for ideological reasons, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s open.”
Member of Knesset Zahava Galon, head of the Meretz party, scoffed at that. Ariel, she told me by phone, is off limits for Palestinians very simply because it is an Israeli-controlled settlement. Just as a West Bank Palestinian can’t go to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv easily, they are equally unwelcome in Ariel. For her, the move reeked of hypocrisy. “It’s a higher education committee approved by people in uniform, so what is the substantive meaning? It’s unbelievable.” She called it a sign of the government’s true program of “creeping annexation,” and remarked that it would legitimize the global movements calling for the academic boycott of Israel.
Personally, I’m biting back my anger. I have spent years working towards my doctorate at Tel Aviv University. It’s dragged on because I’ve worked full time as a consultant to pay tuition and support myself, suspending myself during semesters when work was too intense. Despite my tuition payments, the university can’t afford enough security guards, so the gate near my faculty closes at midday. If I arrive after 12:31pm, I walk an extra leg uphill in the burning sun to the next gate, then walk all the way back to my building, which invariably makes me five minutes late.
As a freelance consultant, I also pay National Insurance. That’s the agency that drove Moshe Silman to self-immolate after tormenting him for a 15,000 debt. I avoid such debt by meeting steep monthly payments. Yet were I to have a slow year (say, because I was working on my thesis), there’s no unemployment insurance and therefore no quarter for me – the glitch of being a freelancer.
So now that I’m entering the last year of my program, I planned to immerse myself in research. For the first time, I looked for funding, but the departmental doctoral adviser said sympathetically, “it’s our weak link.” I pored over academic grants; most of them were for security-related studies. Finally, I applied for a “subsistence grant,” which covers tuition (about NIS 7000) and a maximum of NIS 4000/month – just over $1000.
Yesterday I was told there’s a good chance I won’t get it, because there just isn’t enough to go around. Today I know why – 100 million shekels are going to a new university as part of the permanent Israeli takeover of the West Bank. Now I know what I’ve been working for, and paying for – I didn’t want that, and I’m not celebrating.
But when the University of Ariel throws open its doors to the Palestinian and Israeli people of the West Bank, and wields its apparently unlimited political power to demand the immediate removal of all movement restrictions preventing any such resident from reaching the school – when it becomes a beacon of equal opportunity and rights for all people in deeds and not in Orwellian rhetoric, when the city of Ariel is transformed into a vibrant university town bubbling and bustling with the cultural, ethnic, linguistic and national diversity of the Palestinian and Israeli students and faculty – a model for the equality of human life inherent in the single state that it is, de facto, establishing – then I will celebrate.