Untenurable: The Firing of Ariella Azoulay
“Everything is political,” cultural theorists often claim. Recently, Bar Ilan University in Israel, decided to prove them right.
Located on the outskirts of Tel-Aviv, Bar Ilan likes to boast that it is 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, however, the university became infamous after one of its students assassinated former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in what turned out to be a successful attempt to arrest the Oslo peace process. The administration was appalled by the criminal act and consequently appears to have adopted a strategic decision to temper its conservative and right-wing proclivities. On the one hand, Bar Ilan continued to provide accreditation for two colleges located in illegal West Bank settlements, yet, on the other, it also developed an excellent gender program and hired a number of faculty members with well known left-wing credentials. It aspired to become a liberal institution guided by ostensibly neutral professional processes and regulations, like all major universities around the world.
It was during this period that philosophy professor Avi Sagi of Bar Ilan hired Ariella Azoulay. From an academic standpoint, he made a wise decision, since over the past decade Azoulay has become one of Israel’s foremost cultural theorists, specializing in visual culture. In addition to publishing scores of journal articles and book chapters, editing journals, translating classic texts, and serving as the curator of numerous art shows, during her ten-year career she has managed to write nine academic books, four of which came out with prestigious presses like MIT, Zone Books, Verso and Stanford University Press (forthcoming). On top of all of this, she is also the supervisor of more than ten PhD students.
Azoulay is one of those rare academics who can produce exceptionally high quality research, and do so as if she is working on a conveyor belt. She is precisely the kind of scholar top rate universities recruit and attempt to retain.
Last month, Bar Ilan decided to deny Azoulay’s bid for tenure, effectively firing her. While the protocols of the university committees that reached this pitiful decision have not been made public, Azoulay’s curriculum vitae and academic accomplishments are on the web, and anyone who is familiar with academic promotion procedures can readily see that the university’s verdict is illogical. But, then again, maybe matters are more complicated; maybe there is a method to the madness.
One important fact that does not appear on Azoulay’s written CV is her political activism and public visibility. She was, for instance, the curator of a photography exhibition “Act of State – 1967-2007,” which included hundreds of pictures that for the first time visually exposed four decades of occupation. The show was held in a gallery at the heart of Tel-Aviv. To be sure, a significant part of her work offers a critique of Israeli rights abusive policy and of Zionism. This is the real reason – no other plausible one exists – that most of the people on the university committees decided to vote against her bid for tenure. Bar Ilan, it seems, could not stomach tenuring a vocal Zionist apostate. It therefore abandoned the liberal maxim of a neutral professional process, and demonstrated that cultural theorists are right: everything is indeed political.