Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv claims to be the largest university in Israel. Its official goal is to cultivate and combine ‘Jewish identity and tradition with modern technologies and research’. Fifteen years ago, after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by one of its students, the university set out to temper its right-wing tendencies and become a more liberal institution guided by ostensibly neutral professional procedures and regulations. Bar-Ilan may have continued to provide accreditation for two colleges in illegal West Bank settlements, but it also developed an excellent gender studies programme and hired a number of left-wing academics.
One of them was Ariella Azoulay, who teaches visual culture and contemporary philosophy. Over the past decade she has become one of Israel’s foremost cultural theorists, producing dozens of journal articles, book chapters and translations, curating a number of exhibitions, and writing several books. She has been published by such presses as MIT, Zone, Verso and Stanford. She is also the supervisor of more than ten PhD students. Just the kind of academic, in other words, that universities want on their staff.
Yet Bar-Ilan recently denied Azoulay’s bid for tenure, effectively firing her. The reasons for the decision have not been made public, but it should baffle anyone familiar with academic promotion procedures who looks at Azoulay’s CV. There is, however, another fact to be taken into account: Azoulay’s prominent political activism. One of the exhibitions she curated, for example, Act of State, included hundreds of photographs exposing the realities of four decades of occupation. The show was held at a gallery in the centre of Tel Aviv. A significant part of Azoulay’s work is critical of Israel’s human rights abuses and of Zionism. So much for the liberal idea of a neutral professional process. Bar-Ilan, it seems, could not stomach giving tenure to a vocal Zionist apostate.