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05.02.2023 | יד שבט התשפג

"BDS Discourse on the Rise among Academic Colleagues," says Bar-Ilan University President, Prof. Arie Zaban

Israeli academia and research partnerships are in danger when "every statement is seen as taking sides, donors begin to ask questions, and BDS talk is heard among colleagues."


Prof. Arie Zaban, chairman of the Council of Israeli University Presidentscringes at the "uncontrolled blitz" on the judicial system and warns of the demise of honest discussion.

Translation of an interview with Prof. Zaban by Calcalist following a statement released by the Council of Israeli University Presidents regarding proposed judicial reforms in Israel

Do you share the claim that this process will lead to the end of democracy?

I object to the word "process" because this isn't a process. It's a blitz. As for the end of democracy, I'll leave this answer to the experts. I know this harms academia, academic freedom, and research; this is my expertise.

There seems to be overwhelming agreement that the system can be fixed or changed, but things of this magnitude should be done through discourse and conversation at a pace that encourages examination in a controlled and managed way

We wrote this public statement without making it political. The way in which this issue is handled will have consequences on academia, and if it affects us, it affects Israel as a whole.

How might the legal reform affect academia?

January is a month of renewal and a time in which universities' executive committees travel abroad seeking collaborations and philanthropic support. This time we encountered significant concern from donors wondering if we still share the same values. 

Why do Bar-Ilan donors care about the Israeli legal system?

Donors seek funding stability. When they fear the possible lack of academic freedom, they begin to wonder if we are the place for their funds, and values are where funding meets academia. 

Where else have you felt reservations? 

The BDS discourse is beginning. We're now at the crucial point where we can still turn things around, but we need to act quickly as a country. 

What about research activity?

Our fears are based on exclusion from external research and international collaborations. What if we are excluded from the academic world? How can we continue doing the essential things that we do? Academia contributes significantly to Israel's security, economy, and prosperity.

The European Union can vote against monetary assistance to Israeli research; it happened with Hungary, and it can happen to us. Losing friends is very easy while gaining friends is incredibly difficult. We're at the stage where we have to stop and reevaluate before external bodies start questioning our academic stability and the wonders of our startup nation. 

Why should we lose friends over legal reform?

The world today doesn't only look at investments at the level of financial benefit; it also speaks in the language of values. So if you are pushed away by the open democratic world, there will be a cost. 

The Chinese Academy is doing well. What is the difference?

The United States is moving further and further away from China, which will cost the Chinese down the road. Of course, nothing usually happens overnight, butconsidering the questions and reservations I’ve heard I can already see the possible distancing from Israeli academia.  

Were there university presidents interested in making a more blunt statement? 

Isn't it beautiful when nine people from such diverse backgrounds can agree on something so grand to the extent that they speak in one voice? 

Why did you need an opinion? As heads of academia, don't you have the means to talk to the government, especially Bar-Ilan, which is close to the religious Zionist public?

We have the means, we have the way, and we share our opinions with representatives of all parties. We speak publicly because the public needs to know what we know and think.

Are you optimistic about the future of academia?

I'm a worried optimist. 

You are considered a conservative university that identifies with religious Zionism. How did your staff view the statement? 

Bar-Ilan University mirrors the State of Israel, with Jews and Arabs, secular and religious, center-periphery, left and right. Therefore, any position I express will have supporters and opposers. 

Since my statement here is not a political one, I can represent academia, including Bar-Ilan University, and say, 'Pay attention, I am raising a flag; there is potential danger here'. We will pay the price if we don't take care of this. However, I don't want to pay the price. I want to continue the prosperity and wonderful things we have here."

Do you think that the leadership is attentive?

I believe they are listening. I think everyone's goal is the benefit of Israel.

Many people believe that the goal is escaping criminal justice.

I am not responsible for the thoughts of others, and we can't always see eye to eye. The definition of what is good for the country is sometimes different, but we have achieved much as a country, and there is no reason we shouldn't continue.

The Prime Minister says that he is the key to a better democracy. What do you think? 

I would love to see a better democracy, but I don't think he can see the whole picture because it's a super complex picture with many implications one can't have control over. The goodwill to bring better democracy is excellent, but you can't do it with goodwill alone. And if you don't do it in a controlled manner, there is potential for a major malfunction."

As the founder of several startups in the energy field, will the legal revolution affect our position in the field of solar energy?

In the field of solar energy today, Bar-Ilan University cooperates with the United States, Germany, Japan, and Abu Dhabi. We are in cooperation with global and local companies. If any of these partnerships and collaborations is affected due to the reform, it will undoubtedly have an impact.

Will startups see lower investments? 

I think so, but many experts are better than me at answering this question. I know that instability hurts; I know that lack of freedom hurts. I know that diversity and collaborations are the ingredients of innovation; if they get hurt, it will hurt the startup nation. But it's all in our hands.

Last week you issued a letter to the faculty and students in which you wrote that the university advocates full equality of rights and that its gates are open to all. Why was it necessary?

The letter came out at a certain moment when harsh things were said, like that doctors wouldn't treat certain people. It created a feeling that there might be discrimination against sectors and minorities. I wanted to make it clear that this will not happen at Bar-Ilan. We have equality; everyone is loved, accepted, and has a place at our university."

Source: Calcalist