Hebrew University offers credits to volunteers in right-wing lobbying group

Lecturers have a hard time understanding the decision by Hebrew University to offer credit points for students volunteering in the right-wing lobbying group Im Tirtzu.

al-monitor Hebrew University is allowing students to receive academic credit for volunteering with the right-wing group Im Tirtzu, Jerusalem. Posted Feb. 13, 2020. Photo by Twitter/@JComm_NewsFeeds.

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bds, activism, freedom of expression, academic freedom, right wing, volunteers, im tirtzu, hebrew university

Feb 21, 2020

The administration of Hebrew University in Jerusalem is facing fierce criticism these days from a group of its faculty, for allowing students to receive academic credit for volunteering with the right-wing group Im Tirtzu. This organization works on several fronts and is especially known for “identifying” professors with left-wing opinions in a campaign it calls “the politicization of the academy.”

This critique has been issued by professors who aren’t necessarily politically identified, such as Michal Frankel, head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, who is now signing on her colleagues to a request for an urgent meeting of the university senate in order to discuss the matter. In addressing the faculty, Frankel wrote Feb. 13, “I believe that our role as academics and members of the senate of Hebrew University is to defend the freedom of expression and academic freedom from those who seek to curtail it and surveil it, especially as this is done, frequently, by violent means. I believe that the university will have no ability to supervise the activities of the volunteers and that the legitimacy it grants to the activities of Im Tirtzu, whose primary goal to limit the academic freedom of the faculty constitutes a threat to the continued existence of the Israeli academy as a stronghold of free thinking.”

Law professor Ruth Gavison in an internal communication among the faculty wrote that the lack of academic supervision over the activity leads to the conclusion that there is no justification to grant academic credit for such activity, and that it seems that on the list of organizations that received similar permission there is no other political group, certainly not from the left.

Attorney Eitay Mack, a graduate of the university, in a letter to Rector Barak Medina, who was behind the decision, offered an array of examples for the political activities of Im Tirtzu. He claimed that Im Tirtzu is waging an incitement and delegitimization campaign against human rights activists and organizations in Israel, including a personal campaign against employees and activists of these organizations, calling them “enemy agents” (or "planted") and defining them as backers of terrorism. He further claims that Im Tirtzu’s campaign resembles anti-Semitic campaigns and that the organization is conducting a campaign of incitement and delegitimization against faculty in institutions of higher education that it identifies as leftists and human rights activists. The messaging of this movement matches those of political parties from the right and the extreme right, he writes, and a significant part of its activities are shared with political parties on the right, including advancing legislation. 

Medina responded in a letter to university faculty and in a frank opinion piece in the Haaretz newspaper. According to him, it is the obligation of the university to grant credit to students who volunteer with aid and charity organizations, according to legislation from 2018. He emphasized that according to the rules of the university volunteer work with groups that have party affiliation is not permitted, but because of the difficulty in determining which groups should be considered political and which should not, the committee authorized to discuss the issue is mainly examining the nature of concrete actions for which volunteering recognition is requested and does not deal with the general character of the groups seeking recognition. According to him, the approach that was taken is liberal, coming from the view that students should be allowed as broad a freedom to choose their volunteer activity. He added that the Im Tirtzu movement promised that the activity for which credit would be granted would only be indiscriminate aid for the needy, and would not include political activity.

It turns out that Medina himself was the subject of attacks from the same Im Tirtzu. Among other things, the movement strove to remove his candidacy to serve as judge on the Supreme Court because of his support in principle for a ceremony in September 2014 to commemorate the Nakba held by Arab Israeli students. Alon Schwartzer, head of the policy arm of Im Tirtzu then explained that demand by saying, “In the hall of justice that is supposed to be a beacon of truth for the State of Israel there is no place for a judge who encourages a narrative that negates and invalidates the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. It would be a disaster like no other if professor Medina leads the lights of justice in Israel.”

Medina told Al-Monitor this is in fact the reason that he is committed to taking a liberal approach that demands tolerance toward these kinds of groups. “The paradox of tolerance — that is, the proper treatment from a liberal viewpoint toward those who do not respect others and act to invalidate their rights — is a topic on which there is a variety of opinions in law and among thinkers. An important consideration on this issue is the influence of a policy on public opinion. I believe that we can attribute the significant erosion in public support for defending freedom of expression to a growing trend in Israeli law to permit restrictions on this right,” he noted.

Some at Hebrew University think that these steps were taken to prevent conflict with the government, in light of the “leftist” reputation the university has gained recently in several episodes. For instance, in the 2018 Lara Alqasem episode, involving an American student who had supported and been active in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and sought to study in Israel. Medina waged a public and legal battle against Minister Gilad Erdan to allow her to study here, and won. Medina, who is considered an expert on human rights in Israel as well as worldwide, and was awarded the prize for good government in 2015, said that at the time that deportation from Israel of someone who supports the boycott could lead their associates to boycott Israel, as an act of solidarity with the activist rather than support for the boycott. He personally supports the entry to Israel of boycott activists, “and here I would argue with them and show them the other side of the issue. But in my role as rector I work in the public and national interest and because I know that Alqasem’s deportation would greatly harm the battle against the academic boycott of Israel.”

According to a senior source at Hebrew University, who spoke on condition of anonymity, it is very likely that Medina and the administration granted the permission to receive academic credit for volunteering with Im Tirtzu in order to prevent a conflict with the Ministry of Education, headed by Rabbi Rafi Peretz of the Yamina party, which is associated with Im Tirtzu. The test will be when organizations affiliated with the left or human rights organizations submit a similar request.

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