AAF Supports University Prep Program for Arab Students in Israel

The Alliance for Academic Freedom stands in solidarity with Hebrew University of Jerusalem in decrying Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s August 2023 decision to suspend the funding for its preparatory program for Arab students. As the university’s letter condemning the decision detailed, over a decade “thousands of students from East Jerusalem were enrolled in preparatory programs in the city: at Hebrew University, Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Azrieli College, and Hadassah College. Most such students are today thriving in the job market and are integrating into Israeli life. The finance minister’s puzzling decision would doom the young people of East Jerusalem to a fate of indolence, without promise of employment and without the ability to live in a shared society.”

The AAF regards this potentially permanent decision to end support for an academic program and reallocate the funds as an explicit form of academic boycott. It damages the basic goals and definitions of a series of academic programs and alters the missions of the distinguished institutions that offer them.

The statement issued by the finance minister’s office, detailed in a Times of Israel news story, makes it clear that this was a politically and ethnically motivated assault on the principles undergirding efforts to offer educational opportunities to Arab students. It claimed to be combatting the presence of “Islamic radical cells in Israeli colleges and universities,” but no evidence for the existence of such cells has ever been offered. Such cells do in contrast operate on the West Bank and involve students at Palestinian universities. Student involvement in terrorist violence there has a substantial documented history. Smotrich is trying to tar students in Israel proper with the same brush. It is irresponsible and malicious to accuse students at Israeli institutions of actions actually carried out on the West Bank by political and paramilitary groups.

The Smotrich statement explicitly declared that these supposed terrorist cells operate “under the pretext of ‘academic freedom.’” His claim that academic freedom has been harnessed to violence at Israeli universities is yet another falsehood. Even if some terrorist cells were to emerge at Israeli universities, that would be no excuse for punishing all Israeli Arab students with the wholesale suspension of this funding.

The discriminatory motivation behind Smotrich’s decision is underlined by his spokesperson’s claim that Arab students should be prioritized for job training, not university education.

The five-year funding program had notable bipartisan support, having been partly approved under the Netanyahu government in 2018 and increased in collaboration with the Arab party coalition partner Ra’am during the Naftali Bennet-Yair Lapid government in 2021-2022. In a further troubling development, Smotrich stated that the current coalition was under no obligation to respect the previous government’s commitments. Continuity in the support of academic programs fundamental to university missions is a way of sustaining academic freedom. Political reversals in program support undermine faith in the apolitical character of university missions and academic freedom itself.

The AAF strongly urges that the suspension of the funding be reversed and the program be restored to full functioning.

AAF Executive Committee: Susana Cavallo, David Greenberg, Rebecca Lesses, Jeffry Mallow, Stan Nadel, Cary Nelson (Chair), Kenneth Stern