Tel Aviv University faculty condemn deal with settlement medical school

The deal will allow students from Ariel University to do clinical work in TAU's affiliated hospitals. 'We're being forced to support the occupation.'

Illustrative photo of doctors in Israel during surgery. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of doctors in Israel during surgery. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine has signed a student exchange agreement with Ariel University, located in the settlement of Ariel in the occupied West Bank. The deal will allow students from Ariel University’s Adelson School of Medicine to be placed in hospitals affiliated with Tel Aviv University for their clinical practice.

Tel Aviv University spokesperson Tomer Velmer hinted that the agreement was signed as a result of external pressure by Israel’s Council for Higher Education, the supervisory body for universities and colleges in Israel that is headed by the education minister. However, the Council denies that it demanded or coerced Tel Aviv University to agree to this cooperation.

Sackler’s dean, Prof. Ehud Grossman, sent a letter to faculty members in September 2020 to inform them that the university’s medical school will “begin teaching students from the faculty of medicine at Ariel University in the run-up to August 2021,” in accordance with the deal. In the letter, Grossman also explained that the agreement was reached “with the goal of maintaining the quality and level of instruction and allowing both faculties to operate optimally.”

The Sackler Faculty of Medicine is affiliated with several hospitals in the center of the country, which medical students are placed in during the clinical phase of their studies. During this practice, the students spend time in various hospital wards shadowing doctors who teach at Tel Aviv University and keeping up with patients’ progress.

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Since the faculty at Ariel University is not “affiliated” with any hospital, it therefore needs assistance from an existing medical school to allow its students clinical access. The lack of affiliation seems to be the impetus for the letter from the dean of Tel Aviv University’s medical school.

According to a source who was involved in the discussions between the Council for Higher Education and the Planning and Budgeting Committee, a subcommittee responsible for funding Israel’s higher education institutions, Ariel University is paying Tel Aviv University a “high fee” for teaching students from Ariel. The source asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions. However, both universities refused to say how much money Tel Aviv University will make from the agreement.

Israel’s first settlement medical school

The Adelson School of Medicine at Ariel University was established in August 2018. The cornerstone for the faculty building, which received funding from American pro-settlement billionaire Sheldon Adelson, was laid even before Ariel University obtained the necessary authorization for the faculty’s establishment.

According to Tel Aviv faculty members, the school’s opening was politically motivated and pushed along by far-right leader Naftali Bennett during his tenure as education minister between 2015 and 2019. For example, the Committee of University Heads, a voluntary body composed of the presidents, rectors, and directors-general of Israel’s universities, opposed the establishment of the school. In a letter it sent to the Council for Higher Education, it claimed the decision was abrupt and seemed “to be dictated by the political echelon.”

Three university representatives who sit on the Planning and Budgeting Committee claimed that Bennett’s actions amounted to “political intervention in the committee’s work.” In a discussion the Planning and Budgeting Committee held in 2019, the professional echelon expressed reservations about establishing a medical faculty in Ariel, due to the lack of hospitals in the area that medical students can undergo clinical training in. “It was clear that Ariel did not have the infrastructure and capabilities, but the political echelon pushed for it,” says a source who was involved in the discussions and asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions.

Sheldon Adelson seen at the ceremony of a laying of a cornerstone for Ariel University's medical school, named after the American businessman, West Bank, June 28, 2017. (Ben Dori/Flash90)
Sheldon Adelson seen at the ceremony of a laying of a cornerstone for Ariel University’s medical school, named after the American businessman, West Bank, June 28, 2017. (Ben Dori/Flash90)

Despite the professionals’ opposition, the Planning and Budgeting Committee approved the establishment of Ariel’s medical school. But in February 2019, Israel’s attorney general ordered the committee to hold a re-vote, after it was revealed that one of the members of the committee was up for promotion by Ariel University.

Days later, the committee voted to reverse its decision to open a medical school in Ariel. Yet Bennett was determined not to give up.

That same February, the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria — a body that used to operate under the auspices of the military commander of the West Bank, and that supervised Israeli higher education in the West Bank under a similar authority to that of the Council for Higher Education in Israel proper — convened to approve the establishment of the faculty in Ariel. Just two days after the vote, the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria was dissolved, when the Knesset voted to place Ariel University and other West Bank institutions under the control of the Council for Higher Education.

In November 2019, the Planning and Budgeting Committee approved the school’s budget, after then-Education Minister Rafi Peretz replaced some of the committee’s members for previously opposing the school’s establishment. With that, Ariel University’s Adelson School of Medicine was ready to officially open.

‘Cooperation forces faculty to support the occupation’

The letter from the dean of the Sackler Faculty of Medicine provoked resentment among some faculty members at Tel Aviv University. “They try to whitewash [the issue], as if the occupied territories and Israel are the same thing,” said a faculty member at the medical school who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions. “They want to stick to a seemingly non-political agenda, when in fact it is actually political. Now I’m being forced to cooperate with this.”

The faculty member explained that the deal prevents him from opting out of the collaboration with Ariel University. “Once we receive the students, I will not be able to refuse to teach them. I will not be able to tell students from Ariel ‘do not enter the department.’”

Academia for Equality, an organization that includes 600 academics in Israel working to promote democratization, equality, and access to higher education for all communities living in Israel, demanded Sackler withdraw from the agreement. In a letter sent to the university administration on Jan. 10, the group said: “Cooperation with such an institution forces faculty and students at Tel Aviv [university] to support the settlements and the occupation, and forces them to adopt a political position that some [faculty and students] strongly oppose.”

The letter stated that many international research funds do not provide grants or funding to institutions in the occupied territories. “One must ask whether the fact that the Faculty of Medicine in Tel Aviv diverts its resources toward the institution in Ariel as part of the ‘deal’ in question does not violate the conditions attached to the funds, which are enjoyed by researchers in the faculty,” since the “equipment and manpower made available by these funds will be made available to Ariel.”

The letter further states that Ariel University is “putting faculty members and students who oppose settlements and occupation in an impossible dilemma,” and that the deal “violates their most basic rights.” The letter claims that there is a “substantial difference” between individual lecturers who collaborate with Ariel and a “collective process on behalf of the entire faculty.”

Students at the Ariel University, December 25 2012. (Flash90)
Students at the Ariel University, West Bank, December 25 2012. (Flash90)

Senior lecturers at Tel Aviv University also wondered why the decision to collaborate with Ariel did not come up for discussion in the university’s academic senate, which approves new curricula, among other things. The university explained that the deal was not part of a new curriculum, but rather would allow Ariel to use their clinical facilities at various affiliated hospitals. However, according to the Sackler faculty member, Ariel’s faculty members will likely make use of “resources that belong to the doctors and patients” at Tel Aviv University.

Tel Aviv University spokesperson Tomer Velmer hinted that the Council for Higher Education had forced the university into the deal with Ariel. “The deal was signed more than a year ago, after the opening of a medical school in Ariel was approved in principle by the Council for Higher Education,” said Velmer. “The agreement was required at the request of the Council and the Planning and Budgeting Committee.”

The Council of Higher Education offers a different version of the events. “The deal does not require the authorization of the Planning and Budgeting Committee,” Beata Krantz, the Council’s spokesperson said, “but rather the committee is required to ensure during the authorization process that there are enough practicum spaces for students who are beginning their studies, and therefore Ariel University was requested to present before the committee where it was planning to carry out the practicum. The Planning and Budgeting Committee neither demands nor requires the signing of the agreement, and the institutions have administrative freedom to do as they please in this context.”

In other words, the Council of Higher Education claims it never demanded Tel Aviv University sign the agreement, and that the understanding was reached between the two institutions so that Ariel’s medical students could have a place to conduct their practical training.

Velmer’s comment did not address a concern raised by Academia for Equality regarding grants from international research foundations such as the European Research Council and the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation, both of which deny funding for academic research initiatives beyond the Green Line. The EU’s Horizon 2020 plan — a seven-year, 80 billion euros fund that provides financial support for research, technological development, and innovation — also refers to the West Bank and East Jerusalem as occupied territories, and thus those areas are not included in its agreement with Israel.

“Clinical training for students in Ariel will not harm the high level of clinical training of the Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University,” Velmer said in his response.

“According to the agreement, the hospitals in question are affiliated with Tel Aviv University only, and the allocation of students is determined by Tel Aviv University’s dean of medicine with regard to the needs and capacity of the hospitals,” Velmer said. “It should be emphasized that according to the agreement, the training of the students is done separately, with Ariel using the hospitals only when not in use by Tel Aviv University, and in any case, as stated there will be no harm to the training of students at Tel Aviv University.”

Ariel University Spokesperson Naama Cohen Yehezkeli stated in response that “the agreement signed a few years ago between the universities is intended to ensure that the training of medical students is optimal and professional, as part of the national effort to increase the number of doctors in Israel, while giving young men and women a proper opportunity to study medicine in Israel.”

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.