The Politics of Naming

A few posts ago, before I was so rudely denied the Internet, I wrote that I was off toIsraelto teach at Ariel University. Actually, I should say Ariel University”Center.” I have been invited to teach an eight week course on deliberation and ethnopolitical conflict. The course deals with group differences and political conflicts in general, but the process of deliberation and conflict resolution in specific. An Israeli friend and colleague promptly wrote me and said you are not teaching at a “University.” My friend wanted me to understand that Ariel Universitywas not an official Israeli University. I did understand that but the name “Ariel University Center” can be pretty deceptive.

The town of Ariel is a settlement in theWest Bank. And the Ariel University Center of Samaria is a large public college located in the town ofAriel. The University center at Ariel was originally associated with Bar Ilan Universitybut now enjoys its own independence. The University has developed since its founding in the 1980s and offers now degrees recognized as quality higher education degrees.

But Ariel and its University have one obstacle to surmount – it’s in theWest Bankand certain segments of Israeli society do not think it should be there. There have been boycotts of the University because of its location and a significant controversy over its status as a “University.” My goal in this post is not to take a political position or to support or condemn anyone but to characterize the problem as an interesting one with respect to the politics of naming and identification Briefly, the controversy goes like this: the Israeli government supported upgrading Ariel to university status but such a vote was considered a political maneuver and met with resistance from many academics mostly because of its location in the West Bank. Moreover, the addition of a new University was by some seen as a threat. The initial vote of support by the government was only a precursor to support by the Council of Higher Education which was ultimately necessary. Later the Council of Higher Education did in fact reject the proposal to grant Ariel University status.

The debate became somewhat of a political football because conservatives wanted “a fact on the ground” in the name of the University, while liberals objected to its location. The institution was once called “the College of Judea and Samaria” but later the name changed to “ArielUniversityCenter.” This name change still upset many people. There were boycotts and letters of opposition. You might be asking yourself how could this institution be calledAriel University Center when such a proposal was rejected by the Israeli Council for Higher Education? It comes down to the politics of naming who has naming rights. It turns out that the Council of Higher Education in Israel proper governs universities inside the green line, but institutions on the other side of the green line are formally subordinate to the Israeli Defense Forces; that is, the army. The Israeli Council of Higher Education has no naming rights, obviously, outside of its official national boundaries. Hence, the Israeli defense minister has the right to name the institution and that he did.

This was mainly a symbolic move to assist the institution with its prestige because no new money was going to come its way. However, increasing enrollments and recognition of the University has improved its budgetary condition. The symbolic manipulation of the name is interesting because there really is no such thing as a “UniversityCenter.” What is that? What makes a “UniversityCenter” different from a “University?” I don’t know. The debate continues with various levels of integration and recognition.

The debate over naming “Ariel University” is a symbolic battle that represents the essence of political conflicts. It also underscores the importance of names, labels, and categories. It is a process critical to the social construction of reality that is so central to ethnopolitical conflicts. At a deeper level, the naming ofArielUniversityis a metaphor for collective experiences. This battle the name is attached to represents the consciousness of settlers, liberals, and conservatives. In other words, the conflict is coded into the argument over the name.

About Donald Ellis

Professor emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on March 17, 2012, in Israel. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Politics of Naming.

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