University students in this country are older than their counterparts almost
anywhere else in the world. Most of them have spent a minimum of three years in
the army, those with officer rank an additional year or two, while many of them
have also done a year of voluntary social work before their army service and/or
have spent a year traveling, getting the army out of their system, before
finally settling down to another three or four years of hard study. By the time
that most of them have finished their first degrees, they are often in their
late twenties. Many already have family responsibilities with partners, spouses
and children, meaning they probably also have part-time jobs, making the
completion of their studies even more difficult.
That is why it is even
more amazing that such a high percentage of university students get involved in
social and welfare projects during the course of their studies. Most notable is
the Perach project, partially funded by the government, through which students
take time out on a regular basis during the week to assist and tutor children
from disadvantaged backgrounds and help bring them up to a level where they too
will be able to matriculate from school with a proper education.
cases, these kids are from homes where the basics of education are still
unknown, where their parents are unable to offer them the financial, social or
knowledge support which is so important for young children in their formative
years of schooling.
There are tens of thousands of children and teenagers
in this country who have succeeded in attaining higher levels of achievement as
a result of the involvement of university students in the Perach
Students engaged in this program do receive partial tuition
payments or grants in return for their work, but for most of them it would be a
lot easier simply to take a temporary job elsewhere and to earn their tuition in
other ways. Dealing with children from disadvantaged backgrounds and broken
homes, in some of the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Beersheba and the
development towns of the Negev can not simply be switched off after each
meeting, in the same way that a factory worker or waiter can simply clock
ALL THE country’s universities are part of the Perach program but in
percentage terms, Ben-Gurion University is by far the most involved. This is for
two main reasons. First, parts of Beersheba and some of the outlying development
towns, such as Ofakim, Netivot, Sderot, Mitzpe Ramon, Dimona and Yeruham, and
the neighboring Beduin communities such as Rahat, Tel Sheva, Laqiya and Hora
have the highest regional concentration of children with lower educational
skills and poorer socio-economic conditions in the country.
unlike the country’s other universities, Ben-Gurion University has, from its
inception, targeted social activism and involvement in local communities as a
It is not sufficient simply to sit within the gated community
and pursue academic excellence (which BGU does very well anyway).
university believes that it is of critical importance to the development of the
state as a whole, and the Negev region in particular, to move beyond the fences
of the gated community and the ivory tower, and to make a positive contribution
to the region and its inhabitants.
Students are also involved in many
other social action programs throughout Beersheba and the region. One of the
most impressive is the Open Apartments Program which has been running for over
30 years. Students live in rent-free apartments located in the
socio-economically challenged neighborhoods of the city, in exchange for which
they share their personal and academic skills with local
Presently, there are over 60 apartments, housing about 100
students. In addition to organizing recreational clubs and classes, students
also adopt families and offer personal counseling and support.
clubs and classes were organized in the past year alone, involving programs for
almost 500 residents, ranging from sports, exercise classes, art and extramural
The Open Apartments program has now been recognized by the
Council of Higher Education as a legitimate university project, along with other
social involvement courses and teaching programs which are taught by faculty in
such diverse departments as the Department of Social Work, the Department of
Education and the Department of Politics and Government, where it funds a course
on human rights.
Another program is the Ayalim project, in which
university students are involved in creating communes within the city, or new
villages in the country’s peripheral regions. Founded in 2002, there are
approximately 600 students in twelve student villages in both the Negev and the
Galilee. There has been some criticism of this program in that it is earmarked
for Jewish students only, but it has brought new life to unsettled areas and to
rundown urban neighborhoods, which would not have taken place otherwise. Within
these villages, students create their own communities and contribute to the
wider region in addition to pursuing their studies.
and student activism go hand in hand. Universities would like their students to
be involved in the sorts of programs described here, but they are more reticent
when it comes to allowing students to actively participate in political and
social protest. Some universities place constraints on the holding of political
meetings and activities on campus, arguing that students have come to study and
to obtain their degree, and that political activism on campus causes disruption,
tensions and may even lead to violence.
At Ben-Gurion University,
students were even put in front of a disciplinary committee following their
participation in right- and left-wing demonstrations following the Gaza flotilla
episodes, while other demonstrations of a political nature are not allowed to
take place on campus itself. But as long as such activities do not lead to
violence or incitement, every type of social and political activism, including
the organization of student branches of political parties (which are banned at
some universities) should be allowed, and even encouraged, as part of the
process through which our students prepare themselves, not only to have a
profession, but also to be future leaders and activists when they step out into
the real world.
There is no dividing line or artificial border separating
social involvement and awareness on the one hand, and political activism and
protest on the other. One only has to look at the major role played by students
in the tent protests of the past year, along with the direct involvement of many
university faculty who actively participated and helped raise social awareness
of the issues. Universities must not detach themselves from the real world, and
it is to their credit that so many of our young adults, despite the advanced age
at which they enter the halls of study, are prepared to participate in, and
contribute to, the wider society within which they live.
The writer is
dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion
University. The views expressed are his alone.