March 25, 2019

Will Hebrew University Become an English University?

“Albert Einstein, the greatest of Jewish scientists, came to speak at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1923, when it consisted of but a single building on Mt. Scopus and hadn’t officially opened. Einstein was to speak on the theory of relativity, and he wanted to do so in French, but some of the lecturers as well as activists for the Hebrew language protested. Einstein acceded, opened with greetings in Hebrew, and then apologized before announcing that the scientific lecture would have to be delivered in French. Ninety-five years later, a similar conflict has resurfaced at the leading university in Israel.

At various meetings and conferences, Hebrew University President Asher Cohen has said that the emphasis during his tenure would be on internationalism, on boosting student exchange programs, receiving faculty from abroad and sending Israeli faculty to universities in other countries. In conjunction with this focus, the university administration would be examining the possibility of transitioning to instruction in English for courses toward advanced degrees, master’s degrees and doctoral studies in the sciences, as well as adding one or two required courses in English for a bachelor’s degree.

Reports about such a move have drawn sharp criticism, especially on the political front, and not only from the nationalist right. To wit, Knesset member Ofer Shelach, from the centrist Yesh Atid, wrote that it is ridiculous that for the sake of international status and the desire to attract foreign students, the university would take a step to reverse 150 years of Zionism and the essence of a free people in its land. Further, he threatened that if the university failed to abandon the idea, the political establishment would have to “cause it to reverse it.””

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