Hebrew University professors object to IDF soldiers in class

The presence of students from an IDF training program will “cause significant harm to what can or cannot be said” in class, one lecturer insists. 

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Several Islamic Studies professors in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem are objecting to having IDF soldiers in their classes because they claim their presence will both stifle dialogue and harm the academic reputation of the department.

Dr. Liat Kozma, the university’s director of the Nehemia Levtzion Center for Islamic Studies, wrote a post on Facebook detailing why she and a few other professors object to the presence of 150 soldiers from the IDF’s Intelligence Corps who have enrolled in classes on Islam and Middle East history.

In a post she later deleted, Kozma said that “dozens of soldiers in uniform in class affects the class dynamics and it’s naïve to assume that ‘the contents of the lessons will not be affected one millimeter,’ as the university administration told us.”

“I’m thinking of our Palestinian students, but not only,” she continued. “To study the history of the Middle East in a mixed class of soldiers and civilians significantly harms what can or cannot be said.”

She also claimed that news of the situation would affect the university’s international reputation.

“The second problem relates to our research and international cooperative ventures,” she added, with the “legitimacy” of Israelis’ work in Middle East studies based not only on its academic excellence, but also “on the fact that our research does not directly serve the security establishment.”

Having a few soldiers in class is acceptable, she said, but more than that represents “a draft of our department to serve the army.” This, she argues, will have “severe consequences” for perceptions of the department’s legitimacy.

Hebrew University Rector Prof. Barak Medina denied that the presence of soldiers represents a threat to academic freedom. “The claims are coming from a small minority of lecturers,” he said Thursday during an interview on Reshet Bet of Israel Radio. And, he added, as a public institution, the university has a “social responsibility” to invite students to study there as part of their army training. “We have no problem with uniforms,” he said.

This is not the first time there’s been an uproar over soldier students at Hebrew University. In January of 2018, senior lecturer Dr. Carola Hilfrich told a female IDF soldier who’d been insulted by an Arab student in the professor’s class, “You cannot be naive and ask to be treated as a civilian when you are in uniform. You are a soldier in the Israeli army, and you will be treated accordingly.”

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After the exchange, the professor was forced by administration officials to apologize.