‘It will turn campus into an army base’: Tel Aviv University to host soldiers’ program

Meron Rapoport

+972 Magazine  /  October 4, 2023

A collaboration between the Israeli army and TAU has drawn backlash from faculty and Palestinian students decrying the militarization of academia.

When students return to Tel Aviv University (TAU) next week for the start of the academic year, they will be joined by 80 to 100 uniformed Israeli soldiers. The university is playing host to a new program named “Erez” in collaboration with the Israeli army, designed to allow those training to become officers to complete a full bachelor’s degree even before completing their course, and aiming to turn them into “combat officers and well-educated academics.”

The dean of the Faculty of Humanities at TAU, Rachel Gali Cinamon, has praised the introduction of the program. “I don’t think there is another army in the world that does such a thing, that trains soldiers in humanistic values during military service,” she told +972. “There is huge potential here for an educational dialogue that Israeli society needs.”

The announcement, however, has provoked considerable backlash from segments of the university’s student body and faculty, especially from Palestinian citizens of Israel. “It will turn campus into an army base,” said Yousef Taha, the coordinator of the university’s student group affiliated with the Arab political party Balad, and one of the signatories to a scathing letter sent by Palestinian students to Cinamon demanding to cancel the program.

Cooperation between Israeli universities and the army is not new. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev teaches cadets who are taking their pilots course; the University of Haifa awards degrees to three military colleges, including the army’s Command and Staff College; the Hebrew University of Jerusalem offers the Havatzalot progam for future intelligence officers; and TAU itself already hosts the Arazim program, whose goal is to place outstanding technological-mathematical research students into the army’s intelligence and cyber defense divisions.

Nonetheless, the new program at TAU represents another step toward the militarization of Israeli academia, and the social normalization of that process. With the terms of the agreement still somewhat unclear, critics among students and staff fear the university is increasingly handing over control of the classroom to the army.

Concern over content and conditions

TAU won the tender for the Erez program publicized by Israel’s Defense Ministry, originally set for three cohorts of 200 soldiers in total, with an option for three additional cohorts. The Defense Ministry will pay approximately NIS 8.2 million (over $2.1 million) for the soldiers’ tuition, on top of separate payments for English lessons, psychometrics, meals, and dormitory accommodation, if indeed the soldiers will live on campus rather than a nearby military base. In total, according to an estimate in The Marker, TAU will receive about NIS 15 million (just under $4 million) in relation to the program.

According to the tender, “the military and academic training are intertwined.” The goal of the program, it states, is “the training of intellectual and broad-minded commanders, with rich military knowledge and academic quality; cultivating curious and critical combat officers … [and] developing mature fighters, who exercise judgment and ethical and moral thinking.” Of the six semesters that the cadets will study for their degrees, the fifth will take place at a military facility while the sixth will be spent entirely at IDF Training Base 1, an officers training school in Mitzpe Ramon. In total, between 16 and 24 of the 120 credits needed for the bachelor’s degree will be taught by “military staff under academic supervision.”

Although the tender repeatedly states that the course will meet all academic standards, the program’s military emphasis is clear. Even before being drafted, the cadets will be put through a pre-military course in which they will study “non-academic courses in the field of military and security,” with the aim of “providing a knowledge basis and a common language for the military profession.” The courses “will be taught by expert military staff, under the supervision and control of the academic institution and with its approval.”

Upon their arrival at TAU, too, the emphasis on security and military training will be evident. The cadets will study a “mandatory core class” oriented toward basic military and security studies that will take place in a “closed classroom.” Even the elective courses will be “related as much as possible to the military and security fields,” and will include courses “with a significant contribution and immediate relevance to the role of a combat officer.”

Thus, for example, in the field of political science, elective courses will include “the Jewish-Arab conflict, military-society relations, the Jewish people in the modern era, resolving violent conflicts, the Zionist enterprise — Jewish political thought, strategy and national security, geo-strategy of the Middle East, and an introduction to international law.”

In Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, students will be asked to choose courses in the fields of “introduction to Islam, terrorism, and guerrilla warfare,” and “Iran since the Islamic Revolution.” In the field of military and security, they will study “war and military history in the modern era, military thought in the modern era, military and international law/ethics and morals, the history of the Israeli-Arab wars, and a seminar on the study of battles.”

But the educational content and off-site elements of the program are not the only things raising concerns among students and faculty at the university. In the tender’s confidentiality clause, it is written that “the academic institution will provide the IDF security officer with answers to questions and demands on issues of field security, if required.” This section is seen by some staff as particularly worrisome, since it may entail sharing students’ information with a military body, and could create a situation in which academic meetings would require security clearance.

Another controversial clause in the original tender required the university’s security guards to allow the cadets and their accompanying officers to carry weapons around the university grounds, which critics saw as a direct militarization of campus. This demand has since been dropped, but cadets will still be required to wear their army uniform on campus. It is thought that they will have to deposit their weapons in an armory set up at the entrance to campus or in the dormitories, but TAU did not respond directly to +972’s request for comment on this matter.

The clause that has generated the most outrage, however, is one stating that “the academic institution undertakes to ensure that the academic staff will refrain from offensive statements toward the IDF soldiers studying at the institution, whether these are statements concerning their military service in the IDF or statements relating to their wearing uniforms. This commitment is essential.” In other words, the moment a TAU lecturer says something negative about soldiers studying on campus, the Defense Ministry can cancel the tender.

Generating fear

A group of lecturers at TAU has expressed opposition to these key clauses of the tender. In a meeting of the Faculty of Humanities’ council in mid-August, they proposed a resolution to remove the condition prohibiting “offensive statements” against the soldiers, as well as objecting to the transfer of any information about students to military authorities. They also demanded that the cadets not be permitted to carry weapons or wear uniforms on campus.

In response, the dean proposed a counter-resolution on behalf of the faculty that did not refer explicitly to the prohibition on “offensive statements,” but stated that “the faculty insists on preserving the principles of freedom of expression for all members of the community, staff and students,” which is seen as a slight softening of that clause. Regarding the transfer of students’ information, the counter-resolution stated that “it will be done only according to the law.” It also stated that while soldiers will not carry weapons, they will not be prohibited from wearing uniforms. The dean’s proposal passed with a majority of 65 to 35.

None of this has reassured the university’s Palestinian students, who are estimated to make up between 12 and 16 percent of the TAU’s student body. Students affiliated with Balad, the Hadash party, and other Arab political groupings on campus sent a stern letter to the dean expressing “concern and panic” that the entry of dozens of uniformed soldiers would deepen “political divisions and tensions” and “encourage militarization.” They also expressed concern that Middle Eastern and Islamic studies would blatantly turn from studying for the sake of knowledge to studying to “know the enemy.”

“We see this program as part of a process Israeli society is going through to make everything militarized,” said Taha from the Balad student group. “I understand that [most Israelis] go to the army, but seeing people with uniforms and weapons in an academic institution will generate fear.”

Taha explained that Arab students have felt particularly under threat since the events of May 2021,  which saw the eruption of historic protests across historic Palestine that came to be known as the “Unity” of “Dignity Intifada”; back then, Jewish students walked around the dormitories carrying weapons. Now, he fears, it will be much worse, and that “in every war on Gaza, our students will be harassed.”

The fact that soldiers will study at the Faculty of Humanities is particularly problematic for Taha, because that is where Arab students have traditionally felt most comfortable. “Speaking in the cafeteria in Arabic, it’s a place where we feel we belong,” he said.

The experience with uniformed soldiers attending the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in recent years shows that Taha’s concerns have a basis. “Most of our fears have come true,” said an academic who was part of the struggle against the introduction of the program there. “Primarily [we have seen] a negative effect on the Palestinian students from East Jerusalem. I can’t even imagine how they feel, when I myself feel uncomfortable when [the soldiers] pass in big groups in the corridor.”

Taha points out the hypocrisy of the fact that Palestinian students at TAU are forbidden from “raising a sign against violence on the basis that campus is ‘clean’ and academic,” and yet now they are filling the area with uniformed soldiers. “Either you invest in equality, or you turn the campus into a military base,” he said.

The Palestinian students asked to meet with the dean to express their opposition to the program, but this meeting has yet to take place. Taha is happy about the support they’ve received from some of the staff, but regrets that these are the minority. He sees the university’s willingness to host the program as a case of “money above all else,” and does not rule out the possibility that Palestinian students may take action against the program when classes begin next week.

‘A sect, a caste’

Responding to these criticisms, Professor Cinamon told +972 that the Palestinian student body is “not only dear to my heart, it receives priority under my administration.” She also said that she understands the resistance from some of the staff, since the soldiers are supposed to come as a unit and thus the plan’s implementation is complex. Nonetheless, she insists that the program has “great potential to transmit the humanistic values of the humanities to young soldiers.”

While stressing that she would be happier if they didn’t wear uniform, she explained: “This is not a military force inside campus. They are subject to the rules like all students. There is a huge potential here for an educational dialogue that Israeli society needs.”

The Palestinian students, said Cinamon, “see these soldiers on the train when they come from Baqa or Jatt or Qalansawa [Palestinian localities in Israel’s ‘Triangle’ region], and they see them on television. But [these students] also live in the State of Israel, and the soldiers protect them as well, not just the Jewish citizens.”

Cinamon continued: “Do you think it is important that someday there will be a meaningful conversation between the Arabs and Jews of Israel? When will it happen? They do not study in the same schools, they do not serve together in the army. The only place where this can and does happen is the universities. This dialogue is necessary, it is the fulfillment of living together, with the understanding that the community of Palestinian students’ needs protection. In my fantasy there can be great friendships, and friendships in studies are friendships that last for many years.”

The cadets, Cinamon emphasized, will not receive any discounts to their study fees, and any course for which the studying takes place off-site will be examined according to strict academic criteria. She also rejected the idea that Middle Eastern studies will turn into a course about “knowing the enemy.”

But Cinamon did not deny that one of the main reasons for the Faculty of Humanities’ agreement to accept dozens of uniformed soldiers is “the fact that the humanities are really dwindling, we lack students.” She added: “[The program] has a tremendous potential to revive this wonderful field. Part of the crisis that Israeli society is in right now is due to the fact that the humanities are not taught enough, neither in high schools nor in universities.”

In contrast to Cinamon’s enthusiasm about soldiers learning humanistic values, Yagil Levy, a researcher of military social relations at the Open University of Israel, sees this as a step backward. “Army personnel used to study with other students in the regular curriculum,” he explained. “As the army has become more professional, it is worried about all kinds of problematic influences, so it creates separate frameworks — with uniforms, its own courses, and all kinds of basic conditions such as preventing offense to soldiers.

“In the 1980s,” Levy continued, “the IDF would send officers to study philosophy, even with lecturers who were then considered radicals like Asa Kasher. Now the army closes itself off from society. It has become a sect, a caste. It is moving from soft militarism to hard militarism. The army’s perception is that academia should serve them.”

Despite the clause prohibiting “offensive statements” having apparently been softened, Levy fears that its spirit will hang in the air. “Only very certain lecturers will be able to teach,” he said. “After all, the army will be represented within the university, and the university will not want to place in front of soldiers lecturers who will challenge them. Whoever appears in front of the class will have to answer for their actions.”

For Levy, Israeli academia is cowering before the army. “The economic instinct prevails over other considerations,” he said. “Academia is of the mind that it needs to internalize military norms in order to survive.” As an example, he cites the collaboration between the Open University and the IDF Defense College for Innovation: “The army’s innovation college is innovation to kill; it normalizes violence,” Levy remarked.

Cinamon could not say whether the army waived all of its demands in the tender regarding “offensive statements” or the transfer of students’ information, and said that to the best of her understanding the contract between the army and the university had not yet been signed.

A spokesperson for TAU told +972 that the university is “very proud that the IDF chose the university’s academic frameworks to lead the new elite program for training the army’s senior command staff. The new students will be integrated into a variety of fields in double-major tracks in social studies, humanities, management, [and] sciences, and sees this as another expression of its contribution to the resilience and development of the society and the state.”

The statement clarified that “the soldiers participating in the program are not expected to carry weapons on campus during studies,” and that “the academic staff will be able to continue to express themselves within the framework of the university’s rules and laws, just like today. As for the claim that the university was allegedly asked to share information about students and lecturers with the army – the claims are baseless.”

Meron Rapoport is an editor at Local Call