Special Report | A University of Occupation: how Israel’s first settler university was created
New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Thursday, August 2, 2012 19:25 - 1 Comment
By Jon Simons
“The settlers’ university has been established to legitimise occupation as non-occupation and to assert the rights of Israeli Jews to the land of the Palestinians.”
On July 17th the higher education college in the Israeli West Bank settlement of Ariel became a university. Yet, the official Israeli body that has the right to grant university status, the Council for Higher Education, did not authorise the change, but had opposed it. The chair of its Planning and Budget Committee, Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, wrote to the actual decision makers two days prior to their meeting, re-asserting the authority of his committee to decide whether Israel needs another research university. On July 4th, his committee had voted to extend the current status of the college.
The heads of the seven existing universities had written to Prime Minister Netanyahu, protesting what they regarded as a ‘political’ decision that would cause severe damage to Israel’s higher education and demanding a meeting with him. Already by March, a thousand Israel academics had signed a petition against turning the college into a university, in response to a report by a follow-up committee that deemed the college to meet the requirements of a university.
Former left-wing politician and columnist Yossi Sarid had written on June 27th in Ha’aretz, (Israel’s only ‘quality’ daily newspaper) that if the Committee for Higher Education and the university heads allowed the change in status to pass, then ‘all of Israeli academia will be dressed in army uniform, its face will be painted with khaki, and what it’s accused of will be confirmed – that it collaborates with the occupation regime’.
When the college had been given the peculiar status of a ‘university centre’ in January 2010, Professor Yaron Ezrahi, emeritus professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, called it an ‘academic settlement’. He forewarned ‘the academization of the occupation’ if the college in Ariel became a university.
So, who did establish the university in Ariel? Nitzan Alon, Central Regional Commander, meaning the military governor of the West Bank. As Israel has not annexed the Palestinian Occupied Territories, other than East Jerusalem, it exercises military rule over all except Area A (which according to the Oslo accords is under the civil and security government of the Palestinian Authority).
So, in addition to the Council for Higher Education of Israel, there is a Council for Higher Education for ‘Judea and Samaria’, the Biblical names for the south and north of the West Bank used by the settlers and Israeli authorities. The Central Regional Commander appoints the members of that council, who were selected on ideological grounds, according to Professor Ezrahi. It was a committee of this council that decided Ariel ‘university centre’ was worthy of becoming a university.
When the Council for Higher Education of Israel became an obstacle to the college’s change of status the Education Minister, Gideon Sa’ar, decided to bypass it, relying instead on the July 17th decision of the Council for Higher Education in ‘Judea and Samaria’ and its military sanction. He had the help of his friend in the Likud Party, the Finance Minister, Yuval Steinitz, who promised nearly £8 million to fund the new university outside of the budget for higher education.
As the Council met on the campus of Bar-Ilan University, a handful of protestors from Peace Now and the left-wing Meretz party demonstrated outside with signs declaring: ‘Don’t let the state of the settlers rule over the State of Israel’. Two days later, the veteran radical journalist Gide’on Levi wrote in his Ha’aretz column that any politically-minded Western intellectual of conscience would call for a boycott of all Israeli universities.
Disappointed by the level of opposition to the move by the academic establishment, Levi avowed that there was no longer any academic freedom or intellectual honesty in Israel. On July 25th Ze’ev Sternhell, also professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University, wrote in the same newspaper that the university in Ariel would be a stain on the reputation of Israeli scholarship and research. He also understood that the approval of the college as a university would invite calls for an international academic boycott.
As the Israeli occupation goes, the change of status of the college from a university centre to a university is hardly shattering news. The same week, the Israeli Defence Ministry contracted an architect to resume construction of the Givat Sal’it outpost in the Jordan Valley, a settlement considered illegal even in Israeli terms and which Ariel Sharon’s government had promised to dismantle ten years ago.
While the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council was released from administrative detention without trial, another member of the Palestinian Parliament was detained. Twenty more of them remain in detention, at a time when other administrative detainees are on hunger strike. Israeli armed forces destroyed trees and farmland near Nablus, and the tenth anniversary of the security barrier was marked.
The New York Times printed a short report about Ariel college’s change of status on July 18, but there was more detailed coverage five days later of the Defence Ministry’s request to Israel’s Supreme Court to demolish eight Palestinian hamlets in the South Hebron Hills so it could use the area for military training. The Israeli Association for Civil Rights claimed that the move was part of an undeclared Israeli policy of taking over Area C of the West Bank, contrary to the Oslo agreements, though that was denied by a government spokesperson.
Recognition of the college as a university matters, however, in the current context in which the Israeli government is moving ever closer to absorbing the West Bank or Area C into Israel, thereby abandoning any pretence of adherence to a two-state solution. On July 7th a legal panel commissioned by the government to address the status of the illegal outposts (headed by former Supreme Court justice Edmond Levy), submitted its conclusions. Not only did it recommend legalising all the outposts retroactively, but it also asserted that the government should change the entire legal status of the West Bank on the grounds that Israel is not an occupying force.
Last week, on July 25th, settler leader Dani Dayan published an opinion piece in the New York Times in which he declared that the settlement process in the West Bank is irreversible, and that the existing status quo should be improved, rather than investing vain hopes in a two-state solution. The following day The Guardian reported that the Israeli settler population in the West Bank had grown by 15,000, or 4.5%, in the past year, most markedly in areas that would be expected to become part of a future Palestinian state under a two-state peace agreement. While some commentators speculate that the Israeli government is on the verge of annexing Area C, maintaining the status quo in which Israel’s grip over all of the West Bank grows ever tighter is a daunting enough prospect.
The change of status of Ariel’s college from ‘university centre’ to ‘university’ is thus not the worst abuse and injustice of the Israeli occupation. There is no video footage here of a soldier hitting a Palestinian in the face with a rifle butt. There are no scenes of Palestinian homes being demolished. There is no new settlement appearing on a hill top as Palestinian farmers protest that their land had been usurped. There is no anguished report about an administrative detainee languishing without trial, on hunger strike as their life ebbs. The establishment of a university in a settler town by order of a general is not a violent atrocity, but it signifies something worse than that.
For atrocities can be denounced as such, whereas the creation of this university demonstrates that the occupation is not only being institutionalised and normalised, but also legitimised. Universities are institutions that legitimise cultures, societies and their modes of government, as well as criticising them.
The settlers’ university has been established to legitimise occupation as non-occupation and to assert the rights of Israeli Jews to the land of the Palestinians. The semantics of the change of the college’s title, a seemingly banal act of educational administration, sanction the profanity of conquest with the aura of scholarship. The settler university is higher learning lowered to the level of brute force.