Ben-Gurion University of the Negev called on students Sunday to join nationwide protests against the government’s far-reaching overhaul of the judiciary, and urged all of the country’s institution of higher learning to threaten to strike if the controversial legislation goes ahead.
In a letter, the university’s forum of academic staff, known as the Senate, said it “invites the entire university community to join the ‘day of disruption’ on Thursday, in which we will express our commitment to the democratic values of the State of Israel and the academic freedom under which we operate.”
There have been repeated mass protests against the legislation, including several nationwide “days of disruption” held on either Wednesdays or Thursdays, which have included blocking roads and led to occasional clashes with the police.
A university spokesperson told The Times of Israel that the letter was “more of a declaratory statement and does not mean that this is university policy.”
The letter, which was forwarded by the university’s rector, Prof. Chaim Hames, wrote that stated that the proposed legislation posed “a real danger not only to the future of democracy in Israel but also to the future of higher education, one of the country’s significant economic and cultural growth engines.”
“There is no free and prosperous academia without a robust liberal democracy,” it said. “The damage to the legal system will allow political interference in all areas of academic life.”
The letter said that the university calls upon the Committee of University Heads umbrella group, and on all institutions of higher education, to announce that “if the legislation continues and the bills related to the judicial system are brought to a second and third reading [in parliament], activity in institutions of higher education will be suspended indefinitely.”
The Senate noted that the university backs President Isaac Herzog’s independent proposal for judicial reform, which the president hopes can be a starting point for an eventual agreement between the government and opposition on the issue.
It panned coalition members for quickly rejecting Herzog’s proposal when it was unveiled last week, saying this “indicates their intentions, which include a real threat to the continued existence of the State of Israel in the spirit of the values of the Declaration of Independence.”
However, the letter did not clarify if he was suggesting that students take part in the mass protests, including the blocking of roads. It said “it is still not clear what activities will take place on this day on the university’s campuses, but from the things that came up in the Senate, I hope that there will be opportunities for discussions about the legislation itself and democracy, and opportunities to hear and be heard.”
The university staffers said information about university activities will be announced later.
The letter was criticized by Raz Turgeman, head of the university’s local branch of the Im Tirtzu right-wing student group.
“This is further evidence of the severe politicization in academia in recent times,” Turgeman told the Israel Hayom news site. “The university Senate should under no circumstances ‘invite’ students to a political protest, certainly not in such an explosive time when we would have expected a call for respectful dialogue between the parties and encouragement for unity.”
He called on the university administration to retract the letter and issue a clarification of the rector’s remarks.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has barreled ahead with legislation that aims to weaken the High Court of Justice, hand politicians control over the appointment of judges, enable the Knesset to avoid judicial review of legislation, and enable ministers to appoint — and fire — their own legal advisers.
However, coalition leaders said early Monday that they were delaying all the overhaul’s bills until at least the end of April, except for the one changing the makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee to allow the coalition to appoint Supreme Court justices.
The coalition was also set to keep advancing bills tailored to Netanyahu — barring the attorney general and the High Court from compelling him to take a leave of absence due to conflict of interest, and allowing him to keep funds received from his late cousin as a gift which the court has ruled he has to return — and to Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, allowing the thrice-convicted politician to be reinstated as a minister despite a court ruling prohibiting this.
The plan’s proponents say it is a long-overdue measure to curb what they see as outsize influence by unelected judges. But critics say the plan will destroy Israel’s fragile system of checks and balances by concentrating power in the hands of Netanyahu and his parliamentary majority. They also say it is an attempt by Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, to escape justice.
Tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets over the past two months to protest the sweeping overhaul.
Business leaders, Nobel-winning economists, and prominent security officials have spoken out against it, military reservists have threatened to stop reporting for duty and even some of Israel’s closest allies, including the US, have urged Netanyahu to slow down. Repeated efforts by Herzog to broker a compromise have not yielded fruit.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.