On Tuesday, in a move that undermined Israel’s official Council for Higher Education, the college in Ariel, the West Bank’s largest Jewish settlement, was officially recognized as a university. It will become the eighth Israeli university, and the first in the occupied Palestinian territories. Even though Ariel does not fall under Israeli jurisdiction, the new university will nonetheless receive state funding.
The decision comes after a prolonged public process. Earlier this month, the Council for Higher Education’s Planning and Budgeting Committee released a report arguing that given the relatively small number of Israeli students and the overall scarcity of resources, there was no reason to open another university. Unlike colleges, which are largely private institutions, universities in Israel are publicly funded. There are currently only seven universities in Israel, which enjoy a budget of NIS 4.4 billion (approximately $1 billion).
Becoming a university is something that the college in Ariel was determined to achieve. Founded in 1982, it has since mushroomed, with more than 13,000 students currently enrolled. Rather than wait for official recognition, the school opted to rename itself the Ariel University Center in Samaria in 2007. The move did not sit well with the Council for Higher Education, which vowed to take action.
But there was little the council could do: Because Israeli law doesn’t apply in the West Bank—to do so would mean annexation, which would require awarding Israeli citizenship to nearly 2.5 million Palestinians—all civilian affairs in the region are overseen by the Israel Defense Forces. In 1997, after the council refused to supervise a number of nascent Jewish academic institutions established east of the Green Line, a new body was formed, called the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria (CHEJS). Its members are appointed by the army.
The decision on whether or not to recognize the college in Ariel as a university officially lies with the IDF, but the army leaves all such matters with the CHEJS. Still, according to a 1958 law designed to ensure that decisions concerning higher education will be made with nothing but academic considerations in mind, all budgetary considerations for publicly funded institutions are at the sole discretion of Israel’s Planning and Budgeting Committee.
In defiance of the law, Minister of Education Gideon Saar and Minister of Finance Yuval Steinitz announced earlier this week that they would overrule the recommendation of the Planning and Budgeting Committee by supporting the new university with a two-year grant of NIS 50 million (approximately $12.5 million).
The move infuriated the head of the Planning and Budgeting Committee, Prof. Manuel Trachtenberg. In a letter to the chairman of the CHEJS, Prof. Amos Altschuler, Trachtenberg criticized the CHEJS’s process of deliberations, arguing that no due diligence was done and that the documents considered were mainly self-evaluations filled out by Ariel administration officials.
“We mustn’t allow this discussion to revolve around political and ideological lines,” Trachtenberg wrote. “That would deliver a critical blow to academia.”
The presidents of all seven Israeli universities joined Trachtenberg’s criticism. In a letter delivered this morning to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they called the decision to recognize Ariel as a university “a political decision that comes at a heavy price,” and a “foretold disaster that will badly hurt and crush higher education in Israel.”
The university presidents called on Netanyahu to intervene and reject the decision, a move that is highly unlikely.
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