The subduing of Israeli academia

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Or Kashti | Haaretz | 10 janvier 2013 |

Another unauthorized outpost, another West Bank settlement. This time the intention is not to carry out settlement construction in the West Bank but instead concerns a long-standing goal of the right wing : subduing the system of higher education. In the first half of his term as education minister, Gideon Sa’ar concentrated on instilling a single truth in the schools attended by the country’s children : his own political orthodoxy. In the second half, Sa’ar directed his attention to setting things straight in the world of academia as well.

And that is the common thread linking the threat to close the politics and government department at Ben-Gurion University, the upgrade to university status of the University Center of Samaria in the settlement of Ariel, and recognition, as reported by Haaretz last week, of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem as an institution authorized to award bachelor’s degrees for two programs.

Anyone who managed to forget, or was just interested in the latest gossip around Sa’ar, should know that the minister’s nationalist indoctrination in the schools in recent years has included sending students on field trips to the settlement of Kiryat Arba outside Hebron, and to the City of David archaeological site in Jerusalem that is run by the right-wing Elad organization. It has also included close cooperation with the Israel Defense Forces to increase the rate at which high school graduates enlist in the army. That rate had been made a criterion upon which schools are judged and rewarded. The national anthem is now learned in preschools, consideration of the Palestinian viewpoint has been removed from history textbooks. Revisions have been made to civics curricula, which were perhaps the last domain that offered students a more complex view of reality. In the end, the person at the ministry responsible for the civic curriculum, Adar Cohen, was dismissed.

This questionable list of accomplishments shows how committed Sa’ar has been to the re-education of Israel’s children. The result is that a political perspective has taken over the state education system, assuring that the next generation of voters will embrace right-wing ideas.

Sa’ar has demonstrated that same commitment when it comes to higher education. A day after the recognition accorded the Shalem Center, Sa’ar visited Ariel. « Give your little sister who was just born a hug, » he told the other universities. « [The university at] Ariel didn’t get special favors from anyone. It deserves to be a university and is the only one that was established according to criteria and standards, » he added.

It’s important to remember that his remarks are in total contradiction to the opinion of the chairman of the planning and budgeting committee of Israel’s Council for Higher Education, Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg. No criteria or standards were applied in the decision to upgrade the status of the University Center in Ariel, and in fact the decision was made even though it was in violation of the fundamental principles of equality and fairness, Trajtenberg said.

The purpose of the new recognition at Ariel, and even more so at the Shalem Center, is to cultivate what Sa’ar sees as the correct perspectives among the next generation of academics. The stated vision of the college at the Shalem Center makes it clear that it is not a regular academic institution that encourages curiosity and critical thought. Instead it instructs from an ideological point of departure, as Amnon Portugali of the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem has noted.

The battle waged by the Council for Higher Education, which Sa’ar heads, against the government department at Ben-Gurion University is a complementary step. It is important that the other universities know that there is a limit to inquisitiveness and critical thought. Sometimes there is no need to carry out a threat (to close a department, for example ) ; it’s enough to know that the threat exists.

What can be done in the face of this systematic campaign to refashion education ? All of the universities other than Bar-Ilan have petitioned the High Court of Justice against the upgrade in Ariel, basing their petition on Trajtenberg’s opinion. This late response, however, cannot provide cover for the many years of cooperation that the universities had with the institution in Ariel through joint instruction of students for advanced degrees, involvement in professional journals and other activities. Even in their choice of language in the petition, the drafters were careful not to even hint that Sa’ar was acting out of political motives.

As a result, the politicization that Sa’ar has been advancing is obscured and receives legitimacy. As long as those in academia and education in general refrain from explicitly saying that Sa’ar is a danger to education and free thinking, the devastation of the past several years will only spread further.