university students 248.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On Tuesday, Vice Premier Minister Silvan Shalom was in Beersheba overseeing the Israeli Youth Conference. Now in its second year, the conference, of which Shalom is founder and president, is dedicated to the rights and interests of 18-35 year olds.
"Israel has a unique demographic makeup for the Western world," said Shalom in his keynote speech. "More than half of our population is under the age of 28. This means that we have to treat the young people from a different perspective. These young people must receive the assistance and support that they need."
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where the event was held, provided an opportunity for Shalom to combine the theme of young people's needs with his cabinet portfolio as minister for the development of the Negev and the Galilee. Talking at the conference, Shalom weaved the two issues together.
"Young people are faced with difficult and lifelong decisions. They must decide whether or not they want to study. They have to choose which profession they want to pursue. They need to decide where they want to live and form a family," Shalom said. "I think that young people should be the ones to turn the corner and make the change. Young people are the ones that can bring about the vision of [David] Ben-Gurion and make the wilderness bloom."
SHALOM IS not the only one to recognize the importance of the younger generation. A whole slew of politicians made it down to the capital of the Negev on Tuesday, among them opposition chairwoman Tzipi Livni, cabinet ministers Avishay Braverman, Daniel Herschkowitz, Yossi Peled and Ya'acov Margi and a dozen other MKs. All of them spoke about the need for new leadership and the importance of young people staying in the country and becoming active in civil society.
Based on attendance, it appears that a conference is not exactly what young people yearn for. Four hundred people filled the auditorium, and a couple of hundred more watched on a live stream video feed displayed on television screens outside. Out of a campus of 17,000 students, less than 10 percent felt it important enough to attend a conference dedicated to their well-being.
The conference was divided into two parts. In the morning, there were welcoming speeches by dignitaries and organizers, which were followed by panel discussions. In the afternoon, there was a series of roundtable discussions in which young people sat with the guest politicians to discuss a variety of issues.
The first panel discussion was on entrepreneurship and dealt with the challenges facing young people in business. The second was on youth leadership and dealt with young people's involvement in social action organizations.
The roundtables addressed a range of different topics, from "young people saving the planet," to "young people and affordable housing." A third panel, in the late afternoon, dealt with young people's recreation and sought to inquire "what young people want." Following the conference there was a Hanukka candlelighting ceremony and a concert by the Matbucha Project.
The two main goals proposed by the conference were the formation of a government authority for young people and the promotion of a young people's law. The former is meant to structure a national agenda for young people, paving a social and economical path to make sure their needs are met, and the latter is a Knesset bill aimed at ensuring economic advantages for young people in the areas of housing, employment and education.
Both objectives were on the table before the conference, but it is hoped that they will be boosted following it.
A survey conducted among Israeli young people prior to the conference by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee paints a grim picture. Seventy-seven percent of those polled said they think Israel is not responsive to the difficulties of young people and does not do enough to assist them; 62% believe that social gaps are on the rise; and one in three respondents said they do not necessarily see their future in Israel.
Facing the threats of unprecedented emigration of young people to study and live abroad and growing disillusion of young people toward the state and its leadership, conferences like the one in Beersheba are supposed to convince young people that there is something worth staying for, and there are steps being taken to make things better.
"Conferences like this one are nice, but they do little to really change anything," said 26-year-old arts student Dana Reshef. "The politicians come down from Jerusalem and talk about the special needs of young people, but by thinking of us in those terms they fail to grasp the real issues. They don't understand us if they think they can buy us with technology and gimmicks."
"Age is not a special interest group with particular needs. We need the same things that everyone else in the country needs, and our problems will not be solved by opening youth centers or giving us a credit point toward taxes."
"The politicians are only here to get our votes," said 30-year-old Shahar Maimon. "They saw what happened with [US President Barack] Obama in the elections, and they want to be the Israeli Obama who will get young people to vote. The problem is that they don't really want change. All they want is to remain in their offices."