After decade of refusal, Ariel University accepted into key education organization

Ariel University in the West Bank on Sunday officially was granted a seat on the Committee of University Heads, ending a years-long fight for acceptance.

The decision to exclude the university until now meant that it wasn’t part of the national decision-making processes connected to higher education, and had difficulties related to shared research programs and other academic collaborations.

“After discussing a request on the issue and based on legal advice given to us, it was decided to include [Ariel University] in the forum,” a statement issued by the committee read.

Ariel University is set to join the eight other committee members, which are: the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, the University of Haifa, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Bar-Ilan University, the Weizmann Institute, the Technion, and the Open University (which holds observer status.)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who spearheaded the issue of establishing a medical school at Ariel University in 2018 while serving as education minister, welcomed the decision.

“Ariel University is no longer a ‘stepchild,’” Bennett said on Twitter. “It was officially accepted into the Committee of University Heads. Everyone knows how much I love Ariel University. At the time I fought and managed to approve the establishment of its medical school despite great opposition.”

Then-Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at the ceremony for a new Faculty of Medicine at Ariel University in the West Bank, on August 19, 2018. (Ben Dori/Flash90)

Bennett had also initiated a failed attempt to accept Ariel University into the commission in 2018, and went as far as referring to the commission as a “cartel” at the time.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton and Knesset Education Committee chair MK Sharren Haskel also welcomed the announcement.

Shasha-Biton touted the university’s “excellent researchers and impressive academic accomplishments.”

Haskel, meanwhile, framed the decision as an important move in the face of international boycotts. “It can’t be that we fight boycotts on the international arena only to find that within the State of Israel there is a declared boycott of Zionist institutions,” she said.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton attends a press conference in Tel Aviv on May 9, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Joining the Committee of University Heads “is an important step for academia and another step toward the nation’s unity,” said Ariel University president Prof. Yehuda Shoenfeld.

“The decision is another step toward recognizing the significant contribution of Ariel University to academia and science,” he added.

The Committee of University Heads, established in the 1960s, deals with issues of policy common to all universities in Israel, such as salaries for academic staff, tuition, research budgets, and policies for accepting students. It is currently chaired by Hebrew University president Asher Cohen.

While the committee is a voluntary body, it has a remit with far-reaching implications for higher education in Israel and for the education system as a whole. The committee has been known to comment on current events and offer recommendations on various education-related issues.

The committee had refused to accept Ariel University as a member ever since it received university status in 2012 — a move it was strongly opposed to as well.

At the time, the committee said recognizing the institution as a university would only strain academic budgets, arguing that Israel had no need for another university. The step was also opposed by left-wing groups that said granting university status to an academic institution in a West Bank settlement would damage Israel’s standing internationally.

The other universities in the group were also concerned that the inclusion of Ariel University could make them all a target for boycotts.

The suggested upgrade — which had political and security implications — was also opposed by the Council for Higher Education in Israel, but was eventually approved under mounting pressure from right-wing ministers and politicians.

In October 2020, the US under the Trump administration and Israel under then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed an agreement that removed all previous geographic-related restrictions from any future scientific cooperation, meaning more budgets and investments in academic institutions in the West Bank and primarily Ariel University.

Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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