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Israeli universities are heading for a serious confrontation with the country’s military after protesting that severely restrictive criteria for the admission of Palestinian students undermines their academic freedom.
The heads of six of the country’s most prestigious universities have written to the Defence minister Ehud Barak, taking issue with a limit on Palestinian students to 70 a year in Israel and requiring them to justify to the military the exceptional academic grounds for admission.
One prominent Hebrew University professor has warned that the regulations – which include barring Palestinian students from courses “that could be used against the State of Israel” – will help campaigners in Britain and elsewhere seeking to impose a boycott of Israeli academia. “Since its establishment, the State of Israel has carefully maintained a tradition of academic freedom… We expect the military to maintain this tradition and to limit its involvement to matters in its area of authority, meaning security evaluations only,” said the letter. It was signed by the rectors and deans of Tel Aviv, Hebrew, Ben-Gurion and Haifa universities along with the Weizmann Institute and the Technion.
At the same time, five leading professors have sought to join a Supreme Court petition against the restrictions. In an affidavit denouncing the idea of a discriminatory fixed quota for Palestinian students, one, Professor Tzvi Mazeh of Tel Aviv University, declared: “The Jewish people suffered for many years from restrictions on academic freedom imposed on European Jews, known infamously as the ‘numerus clausus’.”
The petition’s origins lie in a Supreme Court case brought nearly two years ago by the Israeli human rights organisation Gisha on behalf of Sawsan Salameh, a West Bank woman who had a place to do a chemistry PhD at Hebrew University in Jerusalem but was barred by the military from entering the city because of what was then a blanket ban on Palestinian students at Israeli universities.
As a result of the case – highlighted at the time by The Independent – Ms Salameh was allowed to proceed with her doctorate and the Supreme Court asked the Defence Ministry to lift the ban. The ministry substituted restrictions which the court then asked it to modify. Instead, Gisha said yesterday, the Ministry “actually made them harsher”.
While at least two other students from the West Bank had since been denied entry, Gisha said it knew of none that had been allowed in.
Beside stating the usual security grounds for refusal, the military says Palestinian students will only be allowed to take up PhD and MA places if “there is no practical alternative for the requested field of study other than Israel” and they apply at least five months ahead. Applicants for entry permits will have to furnish the military with an explanation from the university of the grounds for admission.
Professor Ehud De Shalit, the head of Hebrew University’s Mathematics Institute, writes in his affidavit that: “Of course, the state may prevent the entrance of a person, Palestinian or other nationality, who poses a danger. But that does not give the state the right to intervene in the university’s considerations in accepting students. As soon as a student has been accepted for study, in terms of academic considerations, he must be treated as any other student, whether he comes from China, France, or the West Bank.”
Professor Moshe Ron of the university’s Literature Department, said that without a change, the criteria would “help those who are trying to impose an academic boycott on Israel”.