Haifa University rejects honorary doctorate for right-wing Nobel laureate

Haifa University decided against granting an honorary doctorate to Nobel laureate Yisrael Aumann.

al-monitor Yisrael Aumann of Israel receives the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics from Swedish King Carl Gustaf at Stockholm's Concert Hall, Dec. 10, 2005. Photo by REUTERS/Anders Wiklund /Scanpix.
Shlomi Eldar

Shlomi Eldar


Topics covered

university, settlements, right wing, israel, boycott, academics

Dec 26, 2013

Haifa University’s decision not to grant an honorary doctorate to Economics Nobel Prize laureate Yisrael Aumann because of his political views has aroused an extensive, stormy debate in Israel’s academic community. The academic boycott on Israel has been gaining ground lately. On this backdrop, those who are critical of the Haifa University decision — motivated by political and not professional reasons — perceive it as intrinsically similar in essence, to the line adopted by the people in favor of academic sanctions against Israel.

Israeli university heads and academics, currently subject to an extensive boycott offensive, have claimed that a boycott is not a legitimate tool in a sphere in which everything is measured and evaluated according to research, development, scientific or technological breakthroughs and contribution to society and to the academic community. And then, along came Haifa University and, with one fell swoop, abandoned the key argument of separation of politics and academia.

Aumann, a brilliant mathematician and world-famous expert in game theory as well as a Nobel laureate, is a pronounced right-winger. His statements and expressions against Arabs are well-known, and to his credit it should be noted that he has never tried to hide his views. Even during the media festival that revolved around him after he won the most important academic prize in the world, Aumann did not try to hide his views. Aumann is also an Orthodox Jew who believes in the right of the Jews to all the "land of Israel" and expresses his views in every place and at every opportunity.

In the Israeli academic world that is sometimes accused of super-leftism, Aumann is viewed as unusual and very different from his colleagues — not only in his views but also due to the fact that he does not keep them to himself.

In an interview with Israeli daily Maariv in July 2010, Aumann said, “The most logical thing is that there should be a Jewish state and an Arab state. A Jewish state where Jews live, and an Arab state where Arabs live. … You take all the Arab settlements and connect them by a web of roads and railways. The same thing with the Jewish settlements. Here are your two states, without moving anyone from his place.”

Regarding mixed cities in which Arabs and Jews live together, Aumann said, “Maybe to put up fences, I don’t know. It’s something to learn, it’s another problem we created for ourselves. I mainly talk about the large [population] blocs, the Triangle, Umm el Fahm — places where it’s not practical [to put up fences].”

Another prominent statement by Aumann relates to his belief that the rights of the Jews to Hebron and settlement block Gush Etzion is similar to their rights to Tel Aviv.

Every year, Haifa University grants honorary degrees in three categories: scientific achievements, entrepreneurship and philanthropy and public service. The fact that Aumann, one of Israel’s senior mathematicians, was disqualified from receiving an honorary degree because his views are not in line with the university's values, opened a stormy debate regarding freedom of expression and its boundaries, censorship and the relationship between academics and politics.

True, the precedent-setting decision was interpreted as involving political considerations in the academic space that seeks to free itself of such influences. But how could Haifa University have done otherwise?

Aumann, after winning the prestigious Nobel Prize, intentionally positioned himself as a person who fights for his political views. While these views may sometimes seem extreme, they are legitimate in the Israeli political discourse. But from the moment that he positioned himself as a figure with a clear political stance, it is impossible to ignore this facet of him, notwithstanding — and despite — his attainments as a world-famous mathematician. Haifa University rightly argues that bestowing the degree to Aumann might not be tantamount to expressing support with his controversial opinions, but would nevertheless express tolerance for statements that should, instead, be condemned.

Haifa University resides in a city that is a true model of coexistence between Arabs and Jews, with Arab students making up roughly 30% of the student body. The university is supported by contributions from all over the world, and its group of donors may well cast a jaundiced eye on the bestowal of an honorary degree on a distinguished professor with unusual viewpoints.

How would the heads of the Jewish communities in the United States or Europe respond if universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Cambridge or the Sorbonne would bestow honorifics on a professor who argued for erecting fences around Jewish neighborhoods throughout Europe or the United States? Wouldn’t this create an uproar? Wouldn’t there be voices interpreting this action as university support for the professor‘s infuriating and racist utterances?

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Ben-Gurion University President Rivka Carmi talked about reasons for the academic boycott of Israel, in comparison to other countries where human rights are violated far more blatantly. Carmi said, "The liberals’ expectation of Israel is that its academia should champion these values [on behalf of human rights and against discrimination], should critique, protest and so forth."

But even if this is not the academia’s role, the granting of an honorific by a university to a world-famous man who proposes to build separation fences between Jews and Arabs and routinely speaks against coexistence may constitute an incriminating indictment against the academic institution. In other words, it would be an example of an institution that not only refrains from protests and warnings on behalf of liberal values but also encourages and bestows honorary degrees.

Hence, the official rationale given by Haifa University to the disqualification is that Aumann’s political views are not in line with the university's values. What is inappropriate about that?

Aumann will not miss the honorary degree that Haifa University’s Executive Committee decided not to grant him. He already won the Nobel Prize. Haifa University — with its Executive Committee Chairman Ami Ayalon, who served as head of Shin Bet and is a navy commander and esteemed military personage — did not dishonor Aumann. Instead, it clearly communicated that while his opinions are legitimate, they are not acceptable "in our school."

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