Israel crisis: university presidents ‘ready to strike again or sue’

Campus shutdowns paused, as Haifa president says fragmented education is partly to blame for constitutional crisis

March 31, 2023
Protesters block a road and hold national flags during a rally to illustrate Israel crisis: university presidents ‘ready to strike again or sue’
Source: Getty

Israel’s university presidents are prepared to close campuses again over a judicial overhaul or bring legal action against the government to protect their independence, according to one leader.

The presidents of Israel’s eight public universities used to meet once a month to discuss upcoming issues and coordinate lobbying. They now meet every couple of days, Ron Robin, the president of the University of Haifa, told Times Higher Education.

At 11pm on Sunday 26 March, after hundreds of thousands took to Israel’s streets to protest the firing of Yoav Gallant, seen as the last dissenting minister in prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, they decided to shut down all their campuses.

The presidents’ decision was made independently of a general strike called by the national trade union federation, both escalations in a months-long campaign of civil disobedience against the government’s plans to curb the political oversight powers of the supreme court and overhaul the appointment process for judges.

The strike and campus shutdowns were called off on Monday, after Mr Netanyahu said in a televised address that the reforms would not be voted on in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, until the end of April at the earliest.

“We’ll do it again if necessary,” said Professor Robin, referring to campus shutdowns, which include plans to provide transport for staff wanting to attend protests. “This is like a weapon of last resort, you have to be careful of how you use it; not make students angry, the public angry, but use it as a very sharp scalpel rather than a blunt weapon.”

“We have very strong autonomy right now and we’re extremely worried the current government might encroach upon our autonomy,” he said, adding that the currently apolitical Council of Higher Education, which provides universities’ funding “can change overnight given the situation we’re in”. “If something terrible happens, we’ll go to court about this,” he said, referring to university autonomy.

The roots of Israel’s constitutional crisis lie in the country’s fragmented education system, said Professor Robin, who completed his doctorate in American history at the University of California, Berkeley, calling the current ethnic and religious divisions in Israel “identity politics gone wild”.

Gad Barzilai, a law professor at Haifa and president of the Israeli Association for Political Science, said: “Israel does need reform in the diversity of its judiciary. It does need reform in the structure of its attorney general. But I think what the government is doing is very dangerous, because as it stands now it may lead to politicisation of the judiciary.”

He said he and fellow law professors have actively opposed the proposals through petitions and statements while also trying to inform debate: “We have drawn up about 14 policy papers which were sent to the parliamentary committee of law and constitution. We did dozens of public lectures pro bono to explain the dangers in what the government would like to do.”

While universities have collectively opposed the reforms, some academics are in favour. Dr Barzilai said out of his faculty of 40 about five or six colleagues were supportive of the government, a political divide that had not caused any problems.

The weakness of Israel’s legislative branch compared with its executive means the current battle over its judiciary was a “last stand”, Professor Robin said. “If the court system changes the way the government would like then we’ll just become another Hungary or another Poland – a second-rate country where all those who are smart enough are going to leave.”

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