Israeli University Leaders Walk Tightrope Over Knesset Vote

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By  Ben Upton for Times Higher Education  Published: August 04, 2023

Institutional leaders say a vote curbing Supreme Court powers has forced them to speak out, but they must still consider pro-government faculty and staff as the state heads for civil strife.

Israeli universities have been left walking a political tightrope after a parliamentary vote to water down the power of Israel’s Supreme Court triggered mass civil unrest.

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets after the Knesset voted to strip the Supreme Court of the ability to overrule some government decisions on the basis of the “reasonableness” standard, while opinion polls have found that only a quarter of voters support the change. The court is due to hear appeals against the law in September.

In a carefully worded statement on the day of the vote, Israel’s Association of University Heads called on academics to be “active citizens in any legal way they can, regardless of their position,” while also stating that the “constitutional revolution” under way “threatens the democratic character” of the country.

University presidents’ opposition to the changes has irked some, with a petition to “keep academia out of the political game” gathering over 300 signatures from prominent professors at the time of writing, some of whom said in accompanying statements that they opposed the law itself.

But presidents who spoke with Times Higher Education said that, with the well-being of their institutions in the balance, they had no choice but to speak out.

“We’re not about politics, but we are about values, and one of our values means equality [and] lack of discrimination. All of those come with having a liberal democracy,” said Asher Cohen, president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI). “You see changes in the rules of the game without wide agreement only in dictatorships.”

Ron Robin, president of the University of Haifa, said it was “absolutely not possible” for heads to stay silent. “This is not an isolated discussion over a particular law, this is a struggle for the nature of society,” he said. “Universities can only thrive within democratic ecosystems.”

Both acknowledged some of their staff and faculty supported the new law, with Robin putting the figure at about 20 percent, but they said their universities’ senates had compelled them to oppose it.

Asher said HUJI’s senate had called for a strike, but he had held off. Aside from the limited impact such a move would have had over summer recess, the law would force him to dock pay from the minority who supported the change.

He said one development that would cross the threshold for a strike would be the government denying the court the right to challenge the new law. “We will stand by the law, and everyone should,” he said.

“If it will get there, then we are in a real, real serious constitutional crisis. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Haifa’s rector, Gur Elroy, was among the army reservists who publicly resigned their military positions in response to the vote, writing in a statement to local media that he could “no longer continue to serve a government that turns Israel into a non-democratic state.” Around 10,000 other part-time soldiers have promised to do the same.

“This is still a country where academics are on a pedestal of some kind, so even if we do something that has been done by thousands of others it has greater resonance,” said Robin.

The university presidents’ statement said that a neutering of the court would prevent them using legal means to oppose “harassment” of academia by the government. “We have a lot to lose if we lose our autonomy,” said Robin. “It’s going to be a long struggle.”