Bar-Ilan student kicked out of class for not wearing yarmulke

A Bar-Ilan University Talmud professor kicked a male student out of his class for not wearing a yarmulke.

The incident reportedly occurred last week and later came to light on the Bar-Ilan Facebook page. A complaint posted omn the page over the weekend by a classmate and the stream of comments following it were removed on Tuesday but then circulated by screenshot.

“How is it possible that a lecturer tells a student to get out of class for not wearing a kipa, and the university backs that teacher?”  the student wrote on the Facebook page.

The university responded that all students signed a form at the time of enrollment that they agreed to wear mandatory head coverings in basic Judaism courses. Not all professors strictly enforce the rule.

“The obligation to wear a yarmulke in classes pertaining to religious texts is meant to respect the institution's Jewish tradition and values. According to the university guidelines, students are obligated to wear a yarmulke in Judaism classes,” according to the university's official response.

Donors push Bar-Ilan to head of the class

“I wish I had 10 percent of the success with the Israeli government as I have with private donors,” sighed Moshe Kaveh, the president of Bar-Ilan University.

His sentiment is understandable. Together with Israel’s six other research universities, Bar-Ilan has been in a prolonged financial wrestling match with the country’s budgetmakers, which, Kaveh warned, could well lead to another academic strike in the fall.

On the other hand, private donations to Bar-Ilan are at a new high, with the West Coast and the Southwestern states leading the rest of the country by a wide margin.

Kaveh was recently in Los Angeles and, in an interview, gave an update on the state of both his university and of Israeli higher education.

Founded 53 years ago, Bar-Ilan is now the largest Israeli university, with 33,000 undergraduate and graduate students, double the number of a decade ago.

To accommodate expanding enrollment, professional schools and research projects, the campus at Ramat Gan has also doubled in size over the last eight years and the campus is one of the showpieces of Israeli higher education.

Although many consider Bar-Ilan an Orthodox bastion, some 60 percent of its students graduated from secular high schools and only 40 percent from religious schools.

Regardless of ideology or academic major, however, every student must spend 25 percent of the curriculum on Jewish studies.

The religious and social mix makes for some lively discussions, inside and outside the classroom, but Bar-Ilan may be one of the few places in Israel, Kaveh said, where the Orthodox and the secular can debate their different perspectives with civility and tolerance.

Bar-Ilan has also seen a boom in new facilities, mostly underwritten by private donations, with Los Angeles philanthropists contributing the lion’s share.

Facilities for studies and research in nanotechnology, medicine, brain research, psychology, languages and Jewish heritage bear the names of such Los Angeles donors as the Gonda (Goldschmied) family, Fred and Barbara Kort, Max and Anna Webb, Lily Shapell, Jack and Gitta Nagel and Milan and Blanca Roven.

Now in the works is the Digital Judaic Bookshelf Project, which aims for nothing less than a complete compendium of Jewish knowledge and thought. Its foundation is the university’s Responsa Project, with some 90,000 questions and answers on all aspects of Judaism.

Private donations now make up 20 percent of Bar-Ilan’s total budget.

“Ten years ago, I couldn’t have dreamt of the kind of support we are getting now,” said Ron Solomon, West Coast executive director.

The kippah-wearing Kaveh, 64, is a prominent physicist, who spends every summer conducting advanced research at Britain’s Cambridge University.

His area of scientific expertise is disordered systems and chaos theory, a specialty he finds useful in dealing with the Israeli government, and that brings him to the downside of his current message.

“All we have in Israel are our brains, but what we are seeing is a steady brain drain, mainly to the United States and Europe,” Kaveh said, sipping water in the lobby of the Century Plaza Hotel.

He puts most of the blame on the government’s budgetary priorities. Currently, the Ministry of Education provides 65 percent of the national university budgets, including faculty salaries, but during the last “seven bad years,” as Kaveh put it, the government has reduced support to higher education by 25 percent.

One result has been that faculty slots have been frozen at all Israeli universities, which means that retiring or departing professors are not being replaced.

Another drawback is that there are no positions available for Israelis who have finished their studies or taken faculty positions at foreign universities but want to return home.

The situation has become so confrontational, that the country’s professors went out on a three-month strike last winter, with Kaveh, as immediate past chairman of the Council of Israeli University Presidents, playing a key role in negotiations with the government.

Some figures point to the discrepancy in funding between Israeli and American universities. The Israeli government budget for all the country’s universities, with their 250,000 students, comes to $1 billion a year, Kaveh said.

By contrast, the University of California, with 10 campuses and 220,000 students, runs on an $18 billion operating budget.

Unless the Israeli government turns its attention to the problem and restores the cut funds, the country’s universities will likely shut down in October or November, Kaveh warned.

He brightened as he returned to discussing the fundamental mission of Bar-Ilan.

“We generally think of the B.A. as the bachelor of arts degree,” he said. “I like to think that B.A. stands for Ben Adam, the Hebrew term for mensch. That’s our real mission, to create a graduating class of menschen.”

VIDEO: Arabic-speaking Israeli prof tells Al-Jazeera: ‘Jerusalem is ours for 3000 years!’

On Al-Jazeera TV, Dr. Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University asserts—in Arabic—that Jerusalem has been the Jewish capital for over 3000 years. 

Available here for the first time with English subtitles.

Cutting Israel Ties Sparks U.K. Outrage

The backlash against the decision by a union of British university lecturers to sever ties with two Israeli universities began almost as soon as the controversial motion was passed.

A wave of condemnation met the decision by the 48,000-member Association of University Teachers (AUT) to sever links with Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities, following a resolution narrowly passed at the group’s annual conference April 22. Within days, a half-dozen AUT members resigned in protest, and more were expected to follow suit.

Britain’s Jewish community was outraged at the move to censure Haifa, because of alleged discrimination against a radical left-wing professor, and against Bar-Ilan, because of the support it provides to a West Bank college. The community quickly mobilized, with the Board of Deputies, the representative body of Anglo Jewry, announcing the formation of a Campaign Group for Academic Freedom to coordinate activity across a range of community groups in hopes of overturning the decision.

Britain’s Orthodox chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, said he was “most distressed” by the motion, which he called “a sad day for British universities. The AUT has betrayed the academic principles it supposedly represents.”

Opposition also came from outside the Jewish community, with British newspapers united in their condemnation. The Times of London described the step as “a mockery of academic freedom, a biased and blinkered move that is as ill-timed as it is perverse,” warning that it could provide an excuse for increased anti-Semitism.

A spokesman for Universities U.K., a higher-education action group, said that the organization “condemns the resolution from AUT, which is inimical to academic freedom, including the freedom of academics to collaborate with other academics.”

One of the initiators of the motion — a weaker version of one that failed to pass the AUT last year — was Birmingham University lecturer Sue Blackwell, a long-time pro-Palestinian campaigner.

Blackwell told JTA that she had received many messages of support for the campaign against “apartheid” Israel.

But the motion has proved to be embarrassing not only for Blackwell’s own university — which immediately distanced itself from the boycott — but for her union. It rapidly became clear that implementing the boycott could put universities in direct contravention of their equal opportunity policies. AUT General Secretary Sally Hunt issued directions to members to take no action until further notice.

“The national executive will issue guidance to local associations on the implementation of the boycotts of the two Israeli universities in due course,” Hunt said. “Until this guidance is issued, it is stressed that members should be advised to not take any action in relation to a boycott which would place them in breach of their contract of employment.”

The British campaign to boycott Israeli academic institutions is an issue that has refused to go away. It was initiated by an April 2002 letter in the Guardian newspaper written by a husband-and-wife pair of British Jewish academics, Steven and Hilary Rose.

Signed by 123 scholars, the letter proposed that since “many national and European cultural and research institutions regard Israel as a European state for the purposes of awarding grants and contracts,” it was time to declare a moratorium on any further support “unless and until Israel abides by U.N. resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians.”

Coming at the time amid Operation Defensive Shield, Israel’s West Bank incursion following months of increasing terrorist attacks by Palestinians against Israeli civilians, the proposed boycott sparked a fierce international debate, and prompted an online counterpetition that quickly gathered support.

Further controversy followed that summer when Mona Baker, a linguistics professor at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, removed two Israeli scholars, Gideon Toury and Miriam Shlesinger, from her journal of translation studies.

Then, in autumn 2003, Oxford University took disciplinary action against pathology professor Andrew Wilkie after he refused to accept a doctorate application from a Tel Aviv university student. Citing Israel’s “gross human rights abuses” against Palestinians, Wilkie told Amit Duvshani, “I am sure you are perfectly nice at a personal level, but no way would I take on somebody who had served in the Israeli army.”

The issue reappeared last December at an international conference at the School of African and Oriental Studies at London University on strategies to resist Israeli “apartheid.”

Ronnie Fraser, a math lecturer at London’s Barnet College and chair of the Academic Friends of Israel, said pro-Israel views have become increasingly unfashionable among the British intelligentsia.

The boycott movement also may have been boosted by the complacency of pro-Israel groups, which felt gratified by widespread opposition to the concept of academic sanctions.

“They thought the boycott had gone away,” Fraser said, pointing to the approximately 1,000 signatories to the original boycott letter, compared with around 15,000 signatures on the one rebutting it. Fraser believes the fact that the AUT motion was heard on Passover eve made it difficult for Jewish members to attend.

Other circumstances surrounding the vote have been the subject of scrutiny. Requests for outside speakers to make the case against the boycott were rejected, and there was no time made available for debate.

“The resolutions are as perverse in their content as in the way they were debated and adopted,” said an Israeli Embassy spokesman in London. “The AUT ignored overwhelming academic and public rejection of the proposed motions.”

Moves already are under way to collect the signatures of 25 AUT members to put forward a motion demanding that the boycott decision be overturned.