Daniel Orenstein

Academia on the firing line?

Protest of Haifa University, Oranim College, and Technion professors and teachers (5 February; Photo by the author).
Protest of Haifa University, Oranim College, and Technion professors and teachers (5 February, 2023; photo by the author).


My country is raging. Riding the train through Tel Aviv last Thursday from a research meeting in the south to teaching in the north, I filmed demonstrators who had closed down both directions on Israel’s largest highway. One of my colleagues from my faculty at the Technion, a landscape architect, was arrested while she demonstrated against the government at Airport City – she split the night between the hospital and the courtroom. Her arrest was concurrent to the arrest of Professor Shikma Bressler, a Weizmann Institute physicist and leader of the protest movement. My lab manager had to retreat with her elderly mother from the center of a demonstration in the Haifa High-Tech Park when police water cannons began to spray the crowds blocking an intersection.

The new normal: No calm.

The proposed judicial overhaul, along with a long list of legislative and administrative affronts to our democratic system, keeps me and most of my colleagues in academia preoccupied. In our faculty meetings, we strain to focus on the day-to-day running of our program, always inevitably drawn to the news of day and what we – as a university, a faculty, and individual academics – are supposed to do about it. Cancel classes to join the demonstrations or bring the news into the classroom? Address systemic issues of injustice in Israeli society or focus on the current attacks on the judiciary? Stick to our areas of expertise or venture opinions outside of our domain (because isn’t it all connected)? Bring our opinions into the class, or feign objectivity? Draw our line in the sand or continue with business as usual.

Student demonstration outside the entrance to the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology (22 March, 2023; photo by the author)

There is no mental refuge from this chaos. The feeling of societal meltdown is continuous. Fear and uncertainty opened that hole in my stomach reserved for periods of anxiety. I attempt, like academics anywhere, to tackle the virtual pile of papers waiting for grades, make lesson plans, review the work of my research students, fulfill my responsibilities to my international projects. But my capacity to multi-task or to work into the night and through the weekend – already cracked by the pandemic years – is severely degraded by the distractions on the street and in the parliament. What does it matter if I give the student an 88 or a 92, if their future freedoms are in question, our army is fracturing, our security being sacrificed, and our economy is collapsing? Should I be grading papers, or should I be transferring my savings accounts out of the country?

Try to focus on work. Then check headlines (does the government show any signs of dropping their initiatives?). More work. Check WhatsApp (is the university president going to issue a statement?). Work. Check headlines again (are university donors reassessing their donations?).

And then it’s time for another demonstration. Once weekly, now, during these ‘weeks of rage’ there is something almost every day. Walk to the university entrance to demonstrate with the students. Walk to the center of the city to demonstrate with parents and their children. It’s Saturday night, and time for the big march across the main thoroughfare of my Haifa neighborhood. The demonstration has broken yet another attendance record.

Back home, I check the message boards of the Israeli Academic Network. As usual, it is saturated with argument and debate (mostly in Hebrew, making it particularly laborious for me to follow). The depth of the arguments and the apparent expertise of the writers leaves me feeling that I have little to contribute. Emeritus professors pontificate without limits. I wonder how pre-tenured professors are so active and whether they are tending to their students or getting grant applications submitted on time.

The future of Israeli academia,

There are many concrete reasons to worry about the future state of Israeli academia. Will Israel be increasingly like Hungary, increasingly curtailing academic freedoms? Or Turkey? Or Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile in the 1970s? Current day Russia? Is this where we’re going? We listen to experts from those countries. Yes, it seems we are walking in that direction.

For now, the government’s activities have only been marginally focused on academia. We may be a pesky group, but we’re not as important as the judicial system, government legal advisors, the commanders of our security apparatus, or the media. But under the smoke of the judicial reform, government representatives are in fact busy at work nibbling away at academic freedom and professionalism. Outside of the universities, this government is attempting to advance political appointees to the Central Bureau of Statistics and the National Library. It is considering new politically-motivated appointments for the National Council for Higher Education – none other than a founder of the Kohelet Institute – the libertarian “think” tank behind the current legislative attack on the judicial system and many other government initiatives.

Other pieces of legislation the government is forwarding focus on outlawing challenging the country’s legitimacy and banning representation of Palestinian perspectives within Israeli institutions. Likud parliamentarian Yariv Levin would like sanctions placed on any university hosting activities that challenge the legitimacy of the state, degrade its symbols, or support ‘terror’. Jewish Strength’s Limor Son Har-Melech proposes that universities, which, according to the proposed law, have become hotbeds of anti-Israel incitement, should forbid students from associating with terror groups or displaying the flag of an ‘enemy state’. I believe these populist proposals are Trojan Horses that severely challenge the concept of academic freedom and will ultimately lead to a McCarthy-like witch hunt for disloyalty on university campuses. Fascism often begins with restrictions on academic freedom (we’re told not to make comparisons to 1933, but maybe there are lessons there that are worth learning?).

Even if these proposals don’t progress, Lior Dattal, education writer for The Marker, suggests that the government takeover of higher education in Israel can happen quietly and with no particular legislation. All it would take is a few key appointments regulating the universities and holding the purse strings of the universities’ 13 billion shekels in government funding.

The majority of Israeli academics seem to think that our future is bleak. 73% of us, according to a survey of almost 2000 senior faculty members across Israel, are more likely to consider leaving the country than a year ago. Of those, almost half have actively begun investigating options or have taken active steps like applying for passports and inquiring with foreign universities. This week a colleague conveyed that her parents (not academics) bought an apartment in Cyprus this month. In the same conversation, another colleague relayed that she has joined a 400-strong group who would like to emigrate together. The Greek government has offered an incentives package for Israeli high-tech leaders to immigrate. Same, apparently, with Portugal and Cyprus. We may be facing a severe brain drain in the near future.

Professors staying… on the barricades.

No one is leaving yet. For now, we are standing on the barricades, defending our right and privilege to contribute to the development of a democratic society. For now, we won’t back down from our defense of academic freedom or our support for an independent Supreme Court. My Argentinian-Israeli colleague recently shared with us the story of “la Noche de los Bastones Largos”, when the Argentinian dictator violently wrested control of the country’s universities from rebellious students and professors. If we fight harder now, maybe we can avoid this scenario.

Demonstration outside the entrance of the Weizmann Institute of Science (23 March, 2023; photo free for use from “Documenting the Protest” WhatsApp group).

While the debate has remained mostly civilized, there is a hint of fear in every conversation about impending violent confrontation. What will happen if things get violent? Civil war is no longer outside the bounds of imagination. Which side will the army take if there is a constitutional crisis between the parliament and the courts? All I can think of is (1) I don’t own a gun (and likely never will); (2) I don’t want to get clubbed across the head by police or roving thugs. All we can hope is that someone is going to steer us away from the precipice. But our prime minister – the person with the most potential to do so – has shown no interest in doing so.

So, we demonstrate. We are compelled because, as our signs say, “without democracy, there is no academia”. And, to quote another sign I spotted at today’s demonstration, “as long as we can resist, there is hope.”

About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
Related Topics
Related Posts