This week at its annual meeting in Jerusalem, The Jewish Agency is discussing the growing problem of anti-Israel delegitimization throughout the world, especially in those countries which are traditional friends of the State of Israel. No doubt, they will seek the simple answers and attribute much of the anti-Israel antagonism to growing anti-Semitism. While this may be true in some cases, they should also know how to differentiate between real criticism of Israel and its policies, even among friends, and that which is driven by other factors.
They should also know where to seek some of the explanation: in decisions which are taken by our own government and which have negative implications for Israel’s standing in the world.
Take the case of Ariel, for example.
During the past two weeks I have lectured at a number of university campuses in the UK. I have also participated in some post-election discussions and briefings with various Jewish community organizations.
The discussions have been far-ranging, but one topic has come up at every single meeting – the Israeli government recognition of the Ariel college as a fully fledged university and the incredible damage that this is doing to Israel in general, and the Israeli scientific community in particular.
The Ariel recognition has provided new ammunition for the pro-boycott and BDS movements which, until now, have been unable to justify their calls for academic boycotts inside Israel (largely unsuccessful and not implemented) due to the government’s policies with respect to the Palestinians.
A university in Israel recently requested a letter of reference from an academic in the US for a promotion file.
The reply was unexpected. The American professor informed the Israeli institution that he could not undertake such a review if it was not clear that the Israeli institution in question categorically opposed the recognition of Ariel and distanced itself from the government decision.
Israeli universities rely on such references from their colleague throughout the world. This is likely to be the first in a long list of similar letters, and could potentially cause severe damage to the way in which academic business is done.
A European foreign ministry is considering sending a letter to all the universities and other institutes of higher education in that country, to the effect that they should be aware of the decision taken by the Council of Higher Education and that they should avoid undertaking scientific collaboration and cooperation with Ariel or faculty members affiliated with that institution. While the letter goes on to say that the government is opposed to boycott and even promotes scientific collaboration between the two countries, this does not extend to Ariel.
No such letter has ever been issued in the past and sent to each university on an individual basis. It will highlight the issue of Israel, rather than demote it to being a non-issue.
A recent email on the network of social science scholars in Israel, advertising a forthcoming conference to be held at Ariel, was the subject of much heated discussion among the hundreds of scholars who are members of the list. There were those who argued that the message should not have been distributed and that the list should refrain from advertising or promoting any event or seminar associated with Ariel. There were others who responded that the list is open to all, that the conference was a bona fide academic event, and that no one is obliged to read or to respond to every message.
They could simply delete the message if it was not to their liking.
There were those who decided to disconnect from the list as a result of its use by faculty members at Ariel.
Many Israeli academics undertake their own personal boycott of Ariel, refusing to take part in joint scientific work with Ariel faculty. Nor do they attend seminars or conferences which take place at that institute.
Based on the academic criteria used for the recognition of Ariel, there are a number of large colleges of higher education in Israel which are no less deserving of full university status. But the country is not seeking to recognize new universities, and the only reason for the recognition of Ariel is the fact that it is located in the West Bank. That does not mean to say that Ariel does not have well qualified faculty members or that its courses and research projects do not meet the necessary standards. But this is no different from such colleges such as Sappir, Achva, the Tel Aviv college (to name but a few), none of which are being considered for full university status.
During the past decade there has been a policy of upgrading the colleges, but differentiating between them and the country’s seven universities, with the former focusing on the teaching of undergraduate degrees and vocational training, while the latter focus on higher degrees and research activities. There is, of course, much overlap between the two, but that does not automatically mean that every college has the right to become a fully fledged university.
The way in which Ariel was finally accredited as a university is just another example of how the Council for Higher Education has become politicized under the chairmanship of Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar. The decision was rushed through at a day’s notice, just a few days prior to the election, while half of the Council refused to take part in the meeting – an unprecedented situation.
There is an outstanding High Court appeal against the decision. Six of Israel’s seven university presidents (the exception being Bar Ilan) have lodged an appeal against the recognition of Ariel. It is not yet clear whether the High Court will rule on the case. Normally, the court will not intervene in the political considerations of a government – be they left or right wing – but will only take action if they are convinced that there have been procedural irregularities, or that the decision is not compatible with the rules and regulations governing the way in which such institutions are accorded recognition.
What is undoubtedly clear is that the recognition of Ariel is causing untold damage to Israel’s scientific reputation – not among its enemies, but among its friends.
Many international faculty who actively oppose and fight against all attempts at academic boycott, and who promote scientific collaboration and research between the two countries, are telling us how this latest decision removes the very basis and justification for their antiboycott activities. Some have made it clear that they are no longer able to defend Israel’s universities in front of their colleagues. For their part, those who actively promote and support boycott are now able to prevail upon their dithering colleagues, who until now have hesitated from taking such action. They are able to show them that the Israeli government makes no distinction between civilian activities inside Israel and those operating in the West Bank.
Beyond the left-right politics, this decision is another own goal in a long list of errors by the outgoing government.
The haste to “finish the job” a few days before the election only made the political nature of the decision even more blatant and transparent. The government which has expended much of its energy in trying to show that they are the only true Zionists, the true patriots and the defenders of the state, while doing their utmost to delegitimize the left wing by portraying them as anti-state and anti-Zionist, have yet again caused substantial damage to the name and reputation of Israel in the world.
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.