Why Israel’s Universities Stood Up for Democracy

GettyImages 1249670007

By Ron Robin | March 31, 2023
Inside Higher Ed

University of Haifa president Ron Robin explains why the country’s research universities went on strike to protest legislation that would overhaul the judiciary.

Imagine, for a moment, if America’s thousands of accredited colleges and universities mustered the willpower and coordination to simultaneously go on strike.

Theoretically, it could never happen. Yet in Israel, presidents of the country’s eight research universities implemented precisely that strategy this week. Following the government’s dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and the continuation of its judicial overhaul plan, the universities decided to halt classes and instruction beginning on Monday morning.

In doing so, Israel’s higher education system joined the unprecedented stand confronting the threats to the foundations of our nation’s democracy—and many might say that, in light of the government delaying its judicial overhaul legislation, our actions actually worked. We called on the prime minister and members of the governing coalition to stop the legislation and immediately enter talks for the purpose of reaching an agreed-upon, broad outline for more sensible reforms.

Why exactly did Israel’s universities go on strike, and how did we make it happen?

It starts with the judicial overhaul proposal’s broader threat to Israeli democracy. The fundamental aspect of a functioning democracy is the system of checks and balances that prevents overreach by each branch of government. In Israel, the system is imperfect to begin with, since there is no real separation of executive and legislative power. The legislative branch is essentially an extension of the executive branch. There are no upper and lower houses of the Knesset, the country’s parliament, that would be found in other democracies.

In Israel, the current government’s quest to seize complete control of judicial appointments breaks down the only wall of protection for the democratic values that are central to society’s functioning. Without an independent Supreme Court, there would be no safeguard against rogue lawmakers and leaders.

The firing of the defense minister, then, served as the catalyst for Israeli universities’ historic action. Gallant had represented the lone dissenting voice within the government on the issue of judicial overhaul. The government’s squelching of his voice, combined with the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who took to the streets to protest, sent an unmistakable message to Israel’s university presidents that we were obliged to take a stand for the values that we hold dear. And so, we did.

Within Israel’s public university system, our member institutions do not always have the same interests, but we still meet on a regular basis in an attempt to form a consensus and present a united front. We do this through our coordinating body—the Committee of University Heads of Israel.

Although our universities are funded by the country’s Council for Higher Education, a body that is run by educational professionals rather than by politicians, this situation could conceivably change overnight. Israeli universities are therefore at risk of losing their autonomy, and the united front that we present to the general public is now more important than ever.

Universities are the engines of the middle class, driving democratic values in our society. In Israeli society in particular, universities are surrounded by entities that think differently and do not necessarily embrace democratic values. The proposed judicial overhaul process placed an inordinate amount of influence in the hands of such entities, endangering our foundational values as we know it. As academic institutions, it was incumbent upon us to take a stand firmly and decisively in the way that we did.

Admittedly, no system of government is perfect, and some degree of reform is always welcome. In Israel, however, the courts’ protection of basic democratic rights is one area of government which currently functions quite well—and if it is not broken, we should not try to fix it.

Going on strike is a tool that we must use cautiously, in a manner that does not inflame students, faculty and the population at large. At the same time, as university leaders, it is a tool that we would not hesitate to utilize again if we absolutely needed to do so, as well as other, more drastic measures, should such a situation arise.