The unseemly enthusiasm with which Israeli Education Minister, Gideon Sa’ar, has championed the elevation of a higher education college in the West Bank settlement of Ariel to the status of full-fledged university took a bizarre turn on Tuesday, when members of Israel’s Council for Higher Education were summoned (by text message) to an unprecedented emergency meeting. There was only one agenda item: to “endorse the completion of the process of recognizing Ariel University in Samaria.”
The move brings little advantage to Israeli academia. Instead, it will likely strengthen calls for an academic boycott of Israeli universities. Anti-Israel boycott campaigns, which have produced ugly court battles and placed pressure on Israeli students in certain countries, will most likely gain new energy.
Sa’ar’s eagerness to ram this resolution through the council in such haste was clearly dictated by politics, not educational needs. Likud election advertisements in the settler council magazine, “Yesha Shelanu,” this week urged national-religious voters to support Likud for crowning Ariel a university “against all the pressures from home and abroad.”
Sa’ar was clearly also trying to pre-empt a looming High Court hearing on a legal challenge to the Ariel upgrade filed by all but one of the presidents of Israel’s existing research universities.
Israel’s university heads have been accused of running a cartel, refusing to create a new university in the past 40 years, even though the country’s population has doubled. But they say the choice of Ariel defies academic logic. The decision was taken by the Council for Higher Education of Judea and Samaria—a body created in 1997 largely to confer academic respectability on the Ariel college after it outgrew its beginnings as a satellite campus for Bar-Ilan University.
Last summer, Manuel Trajtenberg, chairman of the council’s Planning and Budgeting Committee, wrote to his West Bank counterpart 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, in which only 3 percent of all students are enrolled."
In their High Court petition last September, the university presidents said the upgrade was “a seriously flawed decision in its legality and reasonableness, and has substantive, significant flaws in terms of administrative law, including being tainted by conflict of interest, irrelevant considerations, being based on partial and erroneous data and other faults… that demand its cancellation.”
Ariel’s supporters say that its recognition as a university is long overdue. It has a strong engineering department that conducts impressive research, and it houses Israel’s only electro-static accelerator, or free electron laser—one of only six in the world. Its liberal admissions policy favors applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, and it has a sizeable number of Arab students who generally are under-represented in Israeli higher education.
“The danger to the world is not a university in Ariel,” declared Benjamin Netanyahu, who dashed up with Sa’ar after Tuesday’s council resolution in a set-piece of naked electioneering designed to pry a few votes back from the surging pro-settler Habayit Hayehudi party.
But that’s hardly the point. Israel’s official sponsorship for a university in a West Bank settlement will be seen as an act of diplomatic suicide. Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, promised to await the High Court decision but suddenly approved the Ariel upgrade in December, triggering a storm of international protest. "Ariel is beyond the Green Line in a settlement that is illegal according to international law. This decision will deepen the presence of the settlements in the Palestinian territories and will create another obstacle to peace," said British Foreign Office Minister, Alistair Burt.
Ronnie Fraser, director of the Academic Friends of Israel in the U.K., has been locked in a lengthy legal battle with the university and College Union over its attempted boycott of Israeli universities. He says that while the Ariel upgrade will make little difference to “serious academics,” it will poison the public atmosphere.
“When one looks at the bigger picture, the media and—especially—the internet regularly talk about illegal settlements and the banning of settlement goods. Ariel University will now be used in a similar manner to make their case,” says Fraser.