Today is the anniversary of the passing of Israel’s first and legendary prime
minister, David Ben-Gurion. Each year on Ben-Gurion Day, a state ceremony is
held at his gravesite at Sdeh Boker, attended by the country’s leaders. This is
followed by an honorary doctorate ceremony at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
in Beersheba, at which leading personalities are honored, in addition to those
honored at the annual Board of Governors meetings in the spring.
days ago, after months of preparation, the university announced that the
ceremony had been postponed until a later date, due to semi-war conditions which
have prevailed in this region for the past week. Since last Thursday the
university has all but ceased to function. Classes have been cancelled,
administrative staff told to stay at home, and most other meetings and research
seminars postponed or cancelled.
Beersheba, along with most other towns
in the south of the country, are functioning at half pace, schools have been
shut and other public gatherings have been cancelled. No one can take the risk
of a missile from Gaza slipping through the Iron Dome defense system and
striking a classroom, a lecture hall or a theater audience. The Homefront
Command has insisted that, until further notice, all public ceremonies, even the
annual Ben-Gurion Day awards, are to be put on hold while the government and the
army deal with the threat emanating from Gaza.
Driving into Beersheba and
the university campus these past few days has been an eerie
On Sunday morning in particular, normally the beginning of an
action-packed week on campus, with thousands of students returning from weekends
spent back home in Tel Aviv or further north, this was reflected by half empty
roads and a totally empty campus. There is a deadly silence about the place,
reminiscent of a weekend or even Yom Kippur.
The silence is only
interspersed with the intermittent sound of sirens as a fresh wave of missiles
is fired toward Beersheba, or the other towns in the region. Most are prevented
from hitting their targets by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, but on occasion
a missile gets through, causing damage to apartment blocks, cars and shops, and
killing or wounding those who were not quick enough to get into the shelters. No
such chance could be taken at the university or in the schools – and it is not
yet clear when full classes will resume. Even following the partial return to
work of the administrative staff yesterday, most workers stay at home to look
after their children, whose schools are still closed.
There will be
long-term implications for the students called up to reserve duty if the
government decides to undertake an incursion into Gaza itself.
classes do eventually resume, many of them will be with their army units and
will be prevented from returning to their studies. The university will find
every possible way to enable them to make up for missed classes and
It is enough that most of them have already given three or
four years of their life to military service prior to their commencing their
studies. We would have hoped that at the very least they could enjoy three years
of uninterrupted studies. But the reality of living in Israel in 2012 does not
afford them that privilege, and once again they are called to
University students in this country do not have an easy life. They
begin their studies some three to four years after most of their counterparts
elsewhere in the world. Many of them have undergone experiences in the army
which have made them mature and grow up in a way that 20-yearolds elsewhere in
the world have not. And even when they have finished their army service, it is
not easy for them to fund their tuition and living expenses for three or four
years of full time study.
There is no national system of automatic grants
or government loans to assist them. Most of them have no option but to take on
part-time jobs, limiting their ability to devote themselves to full-time study
or to spend time enjoying the many extracurricular social and cultural
activities which should be an integral part of the university
They are older, they want to finish their degree and settle
down. They want to get a job and, if possible, by the age of 30, an age when
their counterparts in North America or Western Europe are well established, get
a full time job and begin to make a living.
For these students, a renewed
call to reserve duty, a call to which they, along with countless other Israeli
citizens, respond without hesitation, will make the completion of their studies
that bit more difficult than it already was. Meanwhile successive Israeli
governments have cut investment in higher education during the past decade, with
students being forced to pay higher tuition fees and universities having to find
ways of raising funds in an increasingly tight global economy.
students deserve easier and better conditions, but it has become increasingly
difficult for them to survive in a world where the available public resources
are becoming scarcer and scarcer.
Privatizing the universities to make up
for government cuts is not the answer, as this results in lower academic
standards, higher tuition fees which can only be paid by those who come from
families with available resources, and preference for those areas of teaching
and research which are measured by their profit margins and efficiency rather
than their wider contribution to society.
The government will argue that
the additional cost of the present war will make it even more difficult to fund
public goods such as cheaper or even free education, let alone increase budgets,
in the coming year. Wars, especially in the age of technological warfare of
long-range sophisticated missiles, unmanned drones, and satellite technology, is
an expensive business and will always drain a country of badly needed
University students, professing a wide range of political
opinions, do not constitute a single unified political lobby which would force a
government into budgeting for their education, as the haredi (ultra-Orthodox)
lobby does for the yeshiva students. The failure of their social protest during
the past two years to have any meaningful impact on government policy is clear
for all to see, and is likely to be perpetuated by the coming
They continue to give most and to receive least.
face of missiles and an impending ground incursion into Gaza, it may seem to be
an irrelevance to write about the cancelling of a ceremony or two. Lives are at
stake and the country is in emergency mode. But it is this disruption of normal
life, of having to close down schools and universities, of increasing the burden
on the public budgets, of forcing us into changing the banality of daily life,
where our enemies are succeeding even as they ultimately suffer yet another
It was Ben-Gurion, whose yartzheit should have been
honored today, who stated that his dream was to see the State of Israel become a
normal state, with all the “normal” problems experienced by every other state in
This week’s silent campus, the postponement of the honorary doctorate
ceremony in his name, along with the diversion of scarce public resources from
education to warfare, is evidence of the fact that, despite the many
achievements of the state and its universities, we are still a long way from
achieving that goal.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and
Social Sciences at BGU, the views expressed are his own.