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Sapir Academic College film professor Nizar Hassan must apologize by Thursday to IDF reservist Eyal Cohen for refusing to teach him while he was in uniform or he could be out of a job.
A day before the deadline, two groups took to the Sderot campus to debate free speech and the college's image.
In early November, Cohen, a second-year film student, arrived straight from reserve duty with Military Intelligence to his class with teacher and director Hassan. He entered without changing out of his uniform and as a result Hassan refused to teach him. Hassan also reportedly kept interjecting the phrase "Yes, sir" in reference to Cohen and refused to allow him to respond until he came back next class in civilian clothes.
A committee set up by Sapir College President Ze'ev Tzahor to look into the incident decided on January 31 that Hassan had one week to write an unequivocal apology to Cohen that also made clear that he respected the IDF uniform and that he would teach anyone who was wearing one. If he did not do so, he would be fired. Until he did so, he could not teach at the college, and if he did apologize but then acted in a similar manner in the future, he would also be fired, the panel decided.
Etti Livni, Hassan's lawyer, told the committee "Hassan acted with good intentions, as someone who just wants to see human beings in his class - not soldiers, not Jews, not Arabs - and he did not mean to humiliate anyone. Just seeing a uniform is enough to frighten and intimidate him. They represent violence for him. He reacted to the student appearing in uniform out of fear (Nizar claimed he thought the student was armed)," according to a copy of the committee's report posted on the college's Web site.
The panel rejected Livni and Hassan's claims and said they suspected his motives were nationalistic. The report also harshly criticized Hassan for failing to uphold academic values, despite his reputation as a devoted teacher.
"We do not think 'artistic freedom' justifies a lenient posture toward those who cross all red lines," the committee wrote.
Shai Dashevsky, a fellow student of Cohen's in the film department, was one of the organizers of the protest in support of academic freedom.
"We protested in support of free speech. We did not rally to support Prof. Hassan. We didn't even mention his name once," Dashevsky told The Jerusalem Post by phone Wednesday evening.
"We believe that the most important thing for Israeli society right now is to debate [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict]," he said.
About 20 people from across the political spectrum showed up, Dashevsky said, and professors also stopped by in between classes.
"It was a humiliating letter [from the committee] to Nizar," Dashevsky said, "We want to be able to make up our own minds without dictates from outside."
"Professors are scared now," they worry that what they say might get them fired, Dashevsky continued.
He said he believed that Cohen had in fact been humiliated by Hassan and that he should receive an apology for the personal affront, but that there should be open debate on campus as well.
Dov Dalin, a third-year student in Business Logistics, organized a counterprotest, with participants coming from the Left and Right. Even far-right activist Itamar Ben-Gvir put in an appearance.
Dalin told the Post he put together the protest to call for Hassan's dismissal.
"I think that [the committee's decision] was the wrong response. They should have told Hassan: 'No, you can't teach here anymore," Dalin, who made aliya from Los Angeles in 1998, said Wednesday evening.
"As a reserve soldier myself, it is not a good message to send to the country that we tolerate someone like him. He attacked something we hold near and dear - the army," Dalin said.
Dalin also indicated that the counterprotest was aimed to reverse the image of Sapir College as a hotbed of radical leftists who "even wanted to invite Tali Fahima to come speak." (Tali Fahima served two years in prison for sharing classified information with the head of Fatah's Aksa Martyrs Brigades in Jenin.)
Those at the rally do not represent the majority of students, he said. Dalin estimated that at its height there were about 40 people at the counterprotest.
The college's Student Union said in a statement: "We view severely any insult to a student and will not allow discrimination of whatever kind within the college. We view Nizar Hassan's behavior as insulting.
"The eyes of the students are now turned toward Prof. Nizar Hassan with the expectation that he will apologize for insulting the student."
Cohen did not return calls for comment by press time.
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