(September 1, 2020 / JNS) This month it was revealed that the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) moved its “Hebrew Year Abroad” scheme from Hebrew University in Jerusalem to Haifa University. The University of West London has also severed ties with Hebrew U and is yet to announce a replacement Hebrew program. If British universities continue to contribute to this wave of capitulation to anti-Israel activism, students may not have the opportunity to learn Hebrew abroad at all.
Many observers blame a recent open letter signed by more than 100 Students’ Union Officers that condemned all 11 universities in the United Kingdom partnered with Hebrew U. The letter claimed that its Mount Scopus campus trespassed Israel’s 1949 Armistice line with Jordan and was therefore “participating in the illegal occupation of East Jerusalem.” However, the European Union embassy in Israel has affirmed that the campus is in “Israel proper,” and consequently, “not located on occupied territory.”
SOAS’s divorce from Hebrew U following this letter was met with robust backlash from pro-Israel organizations such as Israel Academia Monitor, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Pinsker Centre, which reported on the decision before the official announcement. They suggested that the timidity of the Academic Board and the Hebrew professors reporting to it were responsible.
Anti-Israel activists remain conflicted about the outcome. Although Yara Derbas, a member of the pro-BDS campaign group “Apartheid Off-Campus” focused on the territorial issue specific to Hebrew U, another article from the same group framed Haifa as a lateral move. They claim that “both institutions are equally complicit in Israel’s occupation. … The fight must continue until SOAS is no longer affiliated with any complicit universities.” They used the guise of international law to intimidate the university into a separation yet only succeeded in moving the chessboard. It will be harder for them to do the same with Haifa.
In summary, the open letter was based on factually invalid premises attached to controversial international legal theories. The authors admit their objection is inconsequential to their goals because any other Israeli university is considered equally guilty of colonial occupation. They likely knew that such a sentiment would be regarded as too extreme to be effective. Judging by the result, their math checked out.
So how did SOAS justify their actions? In January and March of 2019, the SOAS Academic Board convened to discuss the “Hebrew Year Abroad” (presumably due to the open letter). Yair Wallach, chair of Jewish Studies, and Tamar Drukker, a Hebrew lecturer, were tasked with examining alternatives to Hebrew U. They researched every option—from different universities to kibbutz ulpan (a five-month language school). They were even asked in an “Alternative Proposal Document” written by Sai Englert, a prominent Jewish BDS activist and lecturer at Leiden University, to consider the universities of Al-Quds and Birzeit University in the West Bank. These Arabic-language institutions would, of course, teach Hebrew as a foreign language and bar Israelis from entry—hardly a sensible investment for students seeking Hebrew immersion.
In both meetings, after clarifying the legality of the Mount Scopus campus, the doctors reached the same conclusion. Unequivocally, “Hebrew University is, in our view the best option in pedagogic [academic/pastoral] terms, and its fees are comparable to other universities in Israel (similar or slightly cheaper).”
However, as instructed, the doctors made a list of three feasible alternatives ranking them from best to worst. Haifa was No. 3 (it wasn’t even present in the January report). Haifa was the cheapest, offering the least in student experience in comparison, yet still charging more than Hebrew U. The Academic Board went in the opposite direction recommended to them by the very people they charged with finding a solution.
Wallach publicly insisted that the move to Haifa was a pre-planned change that happened for academic purposes. Yet it was clear in his report that by every observable metric—be it educational, pastoral, financial or legal—Hebrew U beat or matched Haifa. Meanwhile, in a statement to OpenDemocracy, SOAS was happy to admit that the change occurred due to “concerns raised from the SOAS community.” They have since changed approach slightly, vaguely defining the decision as motivated by issues surrounding “student welfare.” Yet given the official report’s failure to find Haifa a superior provider, it could be assumed that SOAS’s concerns over “student welfare” include political complaints. SOAS’s lack of transparency is unsurprising given the persistence of anti-Israel sentiment in academia with SOAS campus itself having voted in favor of an Israeli boycott in 2015.
Unfortunately, the actions of SOAS didn’t solve the political objection they intended to remedy. It seems SOAS thought they could please everyone, keeping a “Hebrew Year Abroad” without angering pro-Palestine activists. Unfortunately, they do not understand the nature of these activists and the BDS movement as a whole. There is no compromise to be made. BDS activists will not be satisfied with any cooperation with Israeli universities however minimal; therefore, by extension, they will always be opposed to a year abroad scheme to learn Hebrew. These programs work by sending students to the languages’ native-speaking countries, and Israel is the only country that recognises Hebrew as its native tongue.
There is no positive outcome to any of this, only neutral or negative. BDS activists can’t celebrate because Haifa is still an Israeli university, and the students studying there rather than Hebrew U will have fewer opportunities to learn and grow. Any university that succumbs to the pressure of 100 students making a claim based on a proven lie that only serves a greater motive is not a stable one. Those universities will change their policies like the wind in the name of progress, but really change nothing at all. Real progress does not come from bending to the will of those who shout the loudest that day. Real progress can only come from conversation, and conversation can’t emerge from impulsive decisions such as these.
Ethan Dayan is a UK Campus Fellow for CAMERA at the University of York.
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