The university's fig leaf

From the archive (legacy material)

Ala Hlehel | Haaretz | 26 October 2005

Under different circumstances, the appointment of Professor Majd al-Haj as dean of research at the University of Haifa – a position that at other universities is called “vice president for research” – would inspire satisfaction and support. But not under the present circumstances. Every fool knows that through this appointment, the University of Haifa intends to fight a renewed call for boycotting the institution in Britain. What could be better than a scholarly Arab placed in charge of the university’s research and international contacts?
Al-Hadj’s accomplishments as a scholar and researcher are praiseworthy, but it is astonishing, given the current context, that he was prepared to accept the appointment, and thereby serve as a weakened, suspect fig leaf for an institution that, over the years, has proven to be discriminatory and tainted by racism, suppression of freedom of speech and shows of force, all of which are opposed to the spirit of even minimal academic freedom.
As part of his new duties, Professor al-Haj is responsible for promoting and cultivating academic research and the university’s scientific contacts and collaborative research efforts in Israel and abroad. Al-Haj will in the near future be compelled to appear before the world and explain why the University of Haifa should not be boycotted, why research ties with the university should in fact be strengthened, and why the persistent complaints by Professor Ilan Pappe about his ostracism and near-isolation should be ignored. In a sense, al-Haj will serve as a human shield against the “anti-Semitic world” that is rising up against the university to destroy it. To no small degree, in a hasty moment of naivete, al-Haj has taken on the job of the university’s defense attorney in the world courtroom.
As a former University of Haifa student, I experienced first-hand its repressive security-minded actions as they related to freedom of expression and organization. I and many other students were called up before disciplinary committees following demonstrations and activities that we organized. Lest there be any doubts, the demonstrations and activities were political, wholly about the Palestinian issue, and there is nothing more natural and obvious than political and social involvement by students at every self-respecting university. The University of Haifa always tried – and still tries – to differentiate between academic studies and political involvement, and there is nothing more contemptible and shameful than such an attempt by an institution that professes to reflect and disseminate freedom of thought and action. The directors of the university should abandon their academic pursuits and revert to the profession they have openly championed: eager generals in the people’s army.
The bleeding-heart and full-of-themselves faculty members cried foul and denounced the “conflation of politics and academic research” when the British academic boycott of the University of Haifa (and of Ariel College) began, a boycott that was nipped in the bud. But any attempt to separate the two is a form of “elitist” escapism that justifies the masses’ revulsion at the disconnected-from-reality ivory towers. Universities are part of the general public, and anyone dissatisfied with this vital symbiotic relationship is a condescending snob. Disengaging research and science from ethical criteria and social and political involvement is a characteristic capitalistic step. Capitalism wants to turn university research into a tool of the corporations, and the universities willingly cooperate, at times due to conviction, and at times due to severe financial straits.
Professor al-Haj should have responded to the offer quickly and unequivocally, without taking advantage of the appointment to criticize the dismal state of the Arab faculty members. The absolute majority of Arab lecturers in Israeli universities are desperately seeking tenured positions and secure positions and salaries. Not a single Arab lecturer has ever stood at our side at either the disciplinary committees or the demonstrations; their noticeable absence caused the institutions of higher learning to belittle them and take them for granted, like submissive clerks.
Once the Arab faculty members fulfill the role they should be playing – bravely, without faltering and without hiding in their campus offices, as al-Haj had done until now – the universities will start to treat them with the respect due them every day of the year, and not only at times of international crises that necessitate the appointment of a non-Jewish champion.
The writer is an author and journalist.