Is this seat occupied? Hebrew University debates IDF uniforms in class

A training program for Israeli military intelligence has renewed debate over the presence of army uniforms on university campuses.

al-monitor The Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus in Jerusalem is seen in this image uploaded May 27, 2014. Photo by Facebook/HebrewU.

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militarization, hebrew university, integration, universities, arab israelis, israeli society, idf

Apr 2, 2019

The Hebrew University in Jerusalem has been at the center of many recent political debates. Last year, its administration fought the deportation of Lara Alqasem, a student supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement who came to study in Jerusalem, and in January, a literature instructor clashed with a student in the reserves who came to class in uniform. The instructor, Carola Hilfrich, received threats following the incident, and Al-Monitor has learned that she decided to cancel all her classes in the Humanities Faculty and go on unpaid leave.

The incident renewed controversy over the issue of soldiers at universities. In the Western world, especially since the student protests of the 1960s in the United States and Europe, campuses have symbolized strongholds of freedom and democracy and to a large extent opposition to militarism. But in Israel, the situation is far more complicated. Mandatory military service for Jewish young people makes uniforms an integral part of Israeli society. Tourists are sometimes frightened at the sight of uniformed and armed soldiers on the trains and buses and at restaurants. Soldiers on active duty, students on reserve duty and officers studying in various university programs are common to see walking around college campuses.

The Hebrew University recently won a bid to provide an educational program for Israel Defense Forces cadets in training for officer roles in the army intelligence service. Until now, Haifa University had administered the three-year military honors program, called Havatzalot. The program includes, among others, classes in the university's Islamic studies department. One of its senior professors, Liat Kozma, wrote in a March 27 tweet that has since been removed, “I’m thinking here about our Palestinian students, but not only them — studying in a combined class of soldiers and civilians about the history of the Middle East impacts what can and cannot be said on an essential level.” She added that “turning 40% of our department into a military department” would harm its legitimacy as a research facility.

An even sharper critique was voiced by a leftist academic organization called “Academy for Equality.” The organization claims that the program would create a small army base on campus and put part of it under military control. Academy for Equality argues that the army could prevent the entry of Arab workers to its facility and change the campus environment to a military one. It further claims that the military could intervene in the curricula.

A source at the Hebrew University told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that these claims are unfounded, that responsibility for security on campus will remain exclusively in the hands of the university, no facility will be closed for the sake of the soldiers and the curricula will remain the full responsibility of lecturers, without any intervention by the military.

However, Academy for Equality also pointed to popular concerns that Arab students would feel uncomfortable, perhaps even threatened, by the presence of uniformed soldiers in class. “The presence of a large and dominant group of soldiers in these classes" will harm the learning experience and cost students the "ability to freely and critically express oneself in classes,” states a press release about the program.

Notably, there is nothing to prevent soldiers from carrying weapons on campus, but in this program, soldiers do not carry them.

Arab Israelis and Palestinians from East Jerusalem make up a large percentage of the students in the department.

Tareq Yassin, the coordinator of student activism with the Arab-Jewish political party Hadash, said that the program promotes militarism at universities and creates a sense that “you’re not at an academic institution but at a security organization.” He agrees with Kozma that the presence of soldiers would harm the ability of Arab students to express themselves freely. He says that universities are usually the first place of intensive contact for Arab young people with Jewish society in Israel, and that the uniforms will create a feeling of discomfort, in the very least. “Who knows,” he commented, “maybe on a difficult day of demonstrations or even war, a soldier could raise his weapon and shoot at Arab students, as Jewish terrorists have done to Arabs in the past.”

Yousra, a student in the Islamic studies department who asked that her last name not be used, said that while she has become used to seeing student soldiers on campus, she has had a hard time speaking openly with a Jewish friend since the day she came to class in uniform while on reserve duty. “You have to understand that an Israeli soldier in uniform with a weapon is a threat by definition to a Palestinian-Israeli Arab, even if it’s only a symbolic threat. I am not afraid, but will certainly feel uncomfortable in a class sitting beside a group of soldiers,” she said.

The rector of the Hebrew University, Barak Medina, recently said in an interview that the complaints come from a small minority of faculty and that while the program presents a certain challenge for the university, as a public institution it’s clear that it should allow the soldiers to study there. According to him, the university administration sees an advantage in the integration of Arabs and soldiers in that it could spark a dialogue that would benefit both sides. He added that there are Arab students who were actually interested in such encounters.

From the Jerusalem campus at the top of Mount Scopus one can view the Old City with its mosques, walls, churches, the Tower of David, the western city with its high rises and hotels and the neighborhoods spread over the hills of Jerusalem. The university’s administration believes that it can integrate within its campus the complexity of Israeli society, soldiers alongside Arabs who don’t serve. While many Arabs would prefer an environment without armed soldiers, such a mixture reflects the makeup of Israeli society.

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