Sapir College’s film professor, Nizar Hassan is a famous documentary film-maker. This “celebrity” must apologize by Thursday to Israeli Army reservist Eyal Cohen, for refusing to allow him to be part of his class while he was in uniform. A day before the deadline, two groups took to the Sderot campus to debate and protest.
In early November, Eyal Cohen, a second-year film student, came directly from his Military Intelligence reserve duty to his film class, given by Nizar Hassan. He was wearing his uniform and as a result Hassan refused to teach him. When he would not leave the room, Hassan ignored him entirely and would not allow him to speak. Hassan also reportedly kept interjecting the phrase "Yes, sir" in reference to Cohen and refused to allow him to respond until he came back to class in civilian clothing. Students referred to Hassan’s demeanor as “childish and vindictive.”
A committee organized by the College President Ze'ev Tzahor looked into the incident. They decided that Hassan had one week to write an unequivocal apology to Cohen making it clear that he respected the IDF uniform, and stating that he would teach anyone wearing one. He was told that should he fail to do so, he would be fired. Until he did so, he could not teach at the college. If he did apologize, but then acted in a similar manner in the future, he would also be fired, the panel decided.
Etti Livni, Hassan's lawyer, told the committee, "Hassan acted with good intentions, as someone who just wants to see human beings in his class - not soldiers, not Jews, not Arabs - and he did not mean to humiliate anyone. Just seeing a uniform is enough to frighten and intimidate him. They represent violence for him. He reacted to the student appearing in uniform out of fear.” Nizar claimed he thought the student was armed.
The panel rejected Livni and Hassan's claims. They said that they suspected his motives to be purely nationalistic. The report harshly criticized Hassan for failing to uphold academic values, despite his reputation as a devoted teacher.
"We do not think 'artistic freedom' justifies a lenient posture toward those who cross all red lines," the committee wrote.
Shai Dashevsky, a fellow student of Cohen's in the film department, was one of the organizers of the protest in support of academic freedom. "We protested in support of free speech. We did not rally to support Professor Hassan. We didn't even mention his name once," Dashevsky told reporters by phone Wednesday evening. Almost 20 people from across the political spectrum showed up, Dashevsky said, and professors also stopped by in between classes.
"It was a humiliating letter [from the committee] to Nizar," Dashevsky said, "We want to be able to make up our own minds without dictates from outside." "Professors are scared now," they worry that what they say might get them fired, Dashevsky continued. He said that he believed that Eyal Cohen had in fact been humiliated by Hassan, and that he should receive an apology for the personal affront, but that there should be open debate on campus as well.
Dov Dalin is a kind and brilliant third-year student of Business Logistics. His vibrant personality and passion for his beliefs are noticeable immediately. He told The Jerusalem Life of how he organized a counter-protest, with participants coming from the Left and Right. Even far-right activist Itamar Ben-Gvir put in an appearance. Dalin told the Jerusalem Life in an exlcusive interview that he put together the protest to call for Hassan's unequivocal dismissal.
"I think that [the committee's decision] was the wrong response. They should have told Hassan: 'No, you can't teach here anymore," Dalin, who made aliya from Venice California in 1998, said Wednesday evening.
"As a reserve soldier myself, it is not a good message to send to the country that we tolerate someone like him. He attacked something we hold near and dear - the army," Dalin said. Dalin also indicated that the counter-protest was aimed to reverse the image of Sapir College as a hotbed of radical leftists who "even wanted to invite Tali Fahima to come speak." (Tali Fahima served two years in prison for sharing classified information with the head of Fatah's Aksa Martyrs Brigades in Jenin.) Those at the rally do not represent the majority of students, he said. The college's Student Union said in a statement: "We view severely any insult to a student and will not allow discrimination of whatever kind within the college. We view Nizar Hassan's behavior as insulting.
Professor Hassan has hopefully learned his lesson, but not without a price. His failure to issue an apology has lost him his job. Dalin was interviewed on National Television and Radio in a relatively successful attempt to discredit Hassan. He artfully debated Hassan’s lawyer in an impressive display of cunning and sharp rejoinders. The story appeared in Maariv, The Jerusalem Post, and most major every media outlet in Israel. It is certainly not the first time that a venomous man has hurt a good Jew for being faithful to his country – but it may be the last time for this professor; assuming that he wishes to keep his next job.
Published in The Jerusalem Life Adar II 2008