Friday October 24, 2014
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24.10.2014
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Dror Eydar

No more monopoly over education

One must read the embarrassing letter written by the Committee of University Heads (which includes the heads of all seven of Israel's research universities) to the Israel Defense Forces' GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon to understand exactly who is at the helm of our country's higher education, and how essential and urgent it is to open up this exclusive club to fresh new members.

In its letter, the committee argues that it is problematic for an IDF officer to decide to grant university status to an educational institution (in this case, the Ariel University Center in Samaria), but at the same time, the committee urges the same officer to make a decision not to approve the university status.

One of the parties involved told me recently: "This is tantamount to an attorney telling a judge, 'My client did not murder his parents, but if what the prosecution is saying is true, I'm asking you to show leniency to my client because he is an orphan.'"

It is very interesting that all of a sudden Rivka Carmi, the president of Ben-Gurion University and the chairwoman of the committee, is asking a military figure to intervene in the shaping of Israel's higher education. It is ironic that the so-called enlightened ones are suddenly pinning their hopes on militarism as a life saver.

Here is an infuriating historic moment: the establishment of the Council for Higher Education's Planning and Budgeting Committee. On May 17, 1977, the conservative camp won the general election, assuming leadership of Israel for the first time after 50 years of left-wing hegemony (since 1931). On June 20, 1977, Menachem Begin was sworn in as prime minister. In the interim, the Left was in hysterics and launched a frantic effort to cement its other strongholds outside the government. On June 6, three weeks after the election and two weeks before the new government was sworn in, the leftist interim government deviously transferred authority over the higher education budget (and more) from the government's hands into the hands of the Planning and Budgeting Committee, or, in other words, into the hands of the academic establishment. In short, anything to prevent the Likud savages from gaining control over higher education as well.

Now do you understand why no new universities have been established since? (The last Israeli institution to be granted the status of a university – Haifa University – was established in 1972.) Now do you understand why Israeli academia is, in large part, a political fortress opposite any conservative government? Do you understand why the quest for Ariel's university status is not just about a university in Samaria but also a struggle for academic freedom and freedom of independent thought within Israel's academia?

If you try to be hired at any of Israel's universities with a conservative (right-wing) resume, you will find that even if your academic achievements outrank those of your leftist colleagues, the underlying test question will be whether or not you belong to their exclusive club. Does this remind anyone of the current situation in the Israeli media or in the Israeli justice system? There is reason for that. Academia, the media and the justice system are the three leftist strongholds that the conservative camp is having trouble infiltrating. But their immunity will not last forever. The leftist hegemony is beginning to crumble on all three fronts, and all three strongholds are heading toward extensive pluralism and healthy friction between opposing viewpoints.

The Committee of University Heads knew for seven years that the institution in Ariel was seeking university status. But a week before the decision to grant it university status, suddenly they jump up and say, "It doesn't meet the criteria." Where have they been for seven years?

The truth is that in all the years since the establishment of Israel there have never been any such criteria. If such criteria for the establishment of universities had been in place, Ben-Gurion University would never have been established in 1969, nor would Haifa University. Who decided to establish new universities over the years? It was the government, and only the government. And it was the government that decided to grant university status to the school in Ariel now.

In the history of Israel, never has a university been established without any opposition from the existing universities that preceded it. I spoke with someone who attended the committee that decided on the establishment of Tel Aviv University in the 1950s. He told me about the fiery opposition voiced in that forum by Hebrew University's Professor Ben Zion Dinur: "Degrees will roll around freely," he reportedly said. "Woe to higher education."

Ironically, only Ariel actually met the strict criteria that were instituted especially for the occasion. Pay close attention to the individuals who manned the evaluation committee that examined Ariel's academic activity: Nobel Prize laureate Professor Robert Aumann (Hebrew University); Professor Amos Altshuler (Ben-Gurion University); Professor Meir Wilchek (Weizmann Institute); Professor David Hasson (Technion); the late Professor Yuval Neeman (Tel Aviv University); and Professor Daniel Sperber (Bar Ilan Univeristy).

How is Emanuel Trajtenberg, the chairman of the Planning and Budgeting Committee, or the Committee of University Heads more authoritative than these renowned professors, who determined that Ariel did in fact meet the necessary criteria? What do the former know that the latter have yet to learn? One of Israel's most veteran professors, who was involved in the establishment of previous universities, said to me: "You want to know why there is opposition? They want monopoly. That is all. Everything else is excuses, including the budget issue. These are just empty arguments to hang onto. They want monopoly."

In conclusion: Ariel University will flourish as Israel's eighth university and pose a profound Zionist challenge to the old academic establishment.

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