Israel judicial reform: Bar-Ilan University shamefully takes sides - opinion

The universities choosing sides in a political debate has the potential to be harmful to the faculty. We are in the throes of a labor dispute, our contract expired several years ago.

 Im Tirtzu student activists are seen waving Israeli flags in protest at Bar-Ilan University. (photo credit: IM TIRTZU)
Im Tirtzu student activists are seen waving Israeli flags in protest at Bar-Ilan University.
(photo credit: IM TIRTZU)

It has been over a week since I received the shocking letter close to midnight and I am still bothered by it. The missive was anti-democratic, immoral, ill-advised, dictatorial and possibly illegal. And it made it much more difficult for my employer, Bar-Ilan University, to play a healing role in the current social rift. Permit me to explain each of those accusations.

The letter, sent by Bar-Ilan University president Arie Zaban, informed the Bar-Ilan community that all teaching in the university was to be canceled indefinitely starting the next morning in protest of the government’s policy. The country was at the apex of a heated internal debate. There were those who said they are worried that the recently elected coalition was about to destroy the robust democracy in our multicultural country by limiting the power of the supreme court.

Opposing them are those who were disturbed and frightened by an overactive and over-powerful supreme court and have waited years for their elected officials to restore a balanced democracy, a step that was finally happening. As the debate raged in the country and the rhetoric and emotions were reaching a crescendo, I received this troubling midnight letter to the faculty and staff of Bar-Ilan University, where I am a professor and have been employed for over two decades.

There are two legitimate sides to this ongoing debate and my university was taking a political position, which is outrageous. Bar-Ilan University is a place where people of a range of political opinions work in harmony side-by-side without making each other feel uncomfortable. Now, suddenly, the university was blatantly siding with one side in an impassioned national political debate, something that made me and many other faculty members and students from all sides of the political spectrum feel uneasy about.

Bar-Ilan University's president acts in a dictatorial manner

The message projected by this decision is contrary to what the university should be transmitting. Both sides in the current political debate assert a democracy in which there is the rule of the majority and the protection of the rights of the minority as a value. Along comes the president and in a dictatorial manner heavy-handedly closed the university.

Bar Ilan University, engineering department (credit: BAR ILAN UNIVERSITY/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)Bar Ilan University, engineering department (credit: BAR ILAN UNIVERSITY/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

There was no vote of the senate or the student union. And even if there had been a vote siding with the president, that would still have trampled the rights of the minority who wanted to teach and be taught, rights that are non-negotiable in a university. Making decisions in the university in this manner certainly does not speak to the values of democracy or pluralism.

It was immoral. The university has paying customers: the students. They want to and are entitled to receive the education and university services for which they registered and paid. Some students had studied for exams scheduled for the next day and later that week and they were now being told hours before their exam that the exams would not take place and because of the upcoming Passover holiday and vacation, the exams would likely be three or four weeks later. This is unconscionable.

This move can be questionable on legal grounds. Bar-Ilan University is not a private enterprise that an individual, even the president, can decide on a whim to shutter it closed. The obligations and authorities of a university president are delineated in the university by-laws. It does not seem that the president is granted the power to close the university based on his personal political views that put him at odds with the democratically elected Knesset, even if other university presidents are taking a similarly questionable move.

A UNIVERSITY should be a safe space where students and faculty feel comfortable in order to maximize their educational and research experiences, the raison d’etre universities. Within the university, there are numerous opportunities to interact with people of varying backgrounds and opinions, and opportunities for critical thinking and developing ideas that can impact the country and the world.

This decision took the university in the wrong direction. Universities should simply not be taking political positions; how much more so a publicly funded institution.

Ironically, the universities choosing sides in a political debate has the potential to be harmful to the faculty. We are in the throes of a labor dispute, our contract expired several years ago.

I can imagine our faculty representatives heading to Jerusalem to negotiate with the current government representatives who will tell them that it is chutzpah to strike against the government and then come asking for a pay raise. They could cynically advise them to go ask Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz or Esther Hayut for the money.

Universities have been trying to attract students from the periphery who might be the first in their families to get a higher education. The universities compete with many colleges and with a tradition in Israel of no post-high school studies.

Many in this general population have a low opinion of academia and academics. This action can lead them to lose any vestige of respect they may have had and they could become disenfranchised by this bad decision.

The behavior of the Israeli universities during this national crisis was a new low for Israeli academia. I am upset that we, the faculty of Bar-Ilan University, were dragged into a political maelstrom against our will which as an institution we should have remained above. We were used as a pawn by the university presidents.

Multiple faculty members have expressed their opposition to this decision, some on social media and others directly to the president. I am not aware of any individual or general apology, explanation or even response by president Zaban.

Bar-Ilan University should not have taken sides, should not have closed and should act as a force in building bridges, not disenfranchising half the population. It should serve as a unifier for the Jewish people and the nation and indeed, there are leaders on campus, such as the rector, professor Amnon Albeck, who are working to create forums and opportunities for dialogue.

The decision to strike was wrong and sets a terrible precedent. The Bar-Ilan community looks forward to a clarification and apology from Zaban and I look forward to a day when the rifts in the nation are healed, issues are discussed maturely and peaceably and professional and academic organizations do not take sides in national political debates.

The writer is a professor of neuroscience at Bar-IIan University.