Next month, the 20-year-old University Center of Samaria (UCS), located in the West Bank city-settlement of Ariel, is likely to receive final authorization from the Ministry of Education. This decision would convert its status from a “university institution” — essentially a teaching college (mihlala in Hebrew) of approximately 13,000 students in 28 academic programs — to a research-based university. From a practical perspective, this accreditation upgrade would allow UCS to compete with Israel’s five other major research institutions — the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, Bar Ilan University, Ben-Gurion University, and the University of Haifa/Technion — for funding and other resources, as well as symbolically represent continued expansion of Israel’s educational system into the periphery.
For many, including the 1,000 professors that recently signed a petition against UCS, the extension of the Israeli academic framework into Ariel is also an insidious attempt to deepen the occupation, where the final frontier of the West Bank is the life of the mind. Dr. Dov Waxman, in a piece on Open Zion last week, opined that a strong stance against UCS was the backbone of a bulwark against right-wing dominance in Israeli politics, and further contended that a boycott of UCS would alleviate the pressure of the BDS movement on Israeli institutions. This was based on solipsistic logic whereby discriminating against one’s own somehow gains credibility with Israel’s critics. To him, the status change of UCS is “driven primarily by political, rather than academic considerations” and must not be granted.
What happens in Ariel stays in Ariel
While I agree with Waxman that politics have gotten in the way of scholarship, I argue that for these very reasons, academics should embrace UCS:
First and foremost, UCS has educated a local population (although it must enact measures to include more Palestinians) since 1982. The change in accreditation does not significantly alter life on campus. Moreover, it has little impact in mitigating the status of the city of Ariel, a settlement of 20,000 people with a highly developed industrial park approximately 25 miles from Tel Aviv. In regards to a future final status agreement, it is likely that “what happens in Ariel stays in Ariel,” and that the entire city will be absorbed into territorial Israel. The notion that further expansion of UCS will endanger the peace process both overstates the importance of this educational institution and understates the severity of the broader problem of territorial swaps with a Palestinian state.
Second, the idea that the creation of an institution of higher education in the occupied territories will fundamentally realign Israel’s research universities with the occupation is a chimera. While it may make some Israeli and Diaspora Jewish academics more comfortable to believe that a kind of cordon sanitaire separates scholarship from the settlements — between the halls of Hebrew University and the human rights crisis in Hebron — this is an inaccurate representation of Israeli reality. The entire nation is complicit in the occupation, and there is no safe haven in the libraries and laboratories within the Green Line. Whether it is the research dollar spent on a security algorithm, the professor serving guard duty as a reservist in the territories, or even the Bagel-Bagel snack (produced in Ariel!) purchased in a cafeteria, Israel’s educational network — regardless of the political persuasions of faculty — is already entrenched in the occupation. Yet, members of this group persist in pretending that as long as UCS doesn’t exist, their own reputations remain intact.
A culture of critical inquiry
Further, as Waxman himself concedes, it is unclear whether objections from Israel’s five major institutions are entirely pure as well, given the fierce competition for budgets. (From a purely practical perspective, UCS could ease pressures for tenured appointments and student spots, although individuals can still decide whether to work or study in the occupied territories.)
Most importantly, the introduction of a fully accredited institution of higher education in Ariel would help foster a culture of critical inquiry in the occupied territories. As the West Bank increasingly emerges as a “state within a state” governed by a separate legal and political regime, a culture of illegalism, and its own social norms, impressionable youth are in desperate need of a liberal worldview and analytical skills that might help them constructively challenge current realities. UCS has the potential to build partnerships and foster dialogue within and outside the Green Line, which would help a new generation of faculty and pupils engage with the difficult choices that must be made for the future of Israel. Depriving these students — who may not have other choices for higher education — of these opportunities, and allowing an illiberal culture that rejects the Jewish democratic state and the rights of Palestinians to flourish, is the greatest danger to the state. If UCS is overturned by short-sighted political goals, these young minds may remain occupied forever.