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For four days in January, the podium at the Daniel Hotel in Herzliya Pituah was akin to a runway. On show at the Interdisciplinary Center's (IDC) Herzliya Conference on National Security were movers and shakers from past and present governments, the diplomatic service, the military and media, as well as the cr me de la cr me of the world's most prestigious academic institutions.
Former US president Jimmy Carter noted wryly that the questions asked of him elicited more applause than his answers.
Harvard Law School professor Allan Dershowitz was all smiles when he remarked during a session in the IDC's magnificent new Arison School of Business complex, "Heck, Israel must be one of the most exciting places in the world," to which IDC president Prof. Amnon Rubinstein ironically interjected, "We would happily settle for boredom."
And while Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in his first public address, advocated that "all sides need to compromise on their dreams," the two predators vying for his job in the upcoming election - Messrs. Netanyahu and Peretz - wondered what compromises they would personally need to make to dislodge Sharon's heir from his frontrunner position.
Rivaling the annual Davos World Economic Forum in public interest, the IDC's Herzliya Conference has become an annual "summit meeting," bringing together the most influential of local and global leadership. Covered on all the major international TV networks, the Herzliya Conference has done much for the international reputation of one of Israel's newest academic institutions.
"It is my aim that The Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya will become a truly international university," says Rubinstein. A former MK and highly respected minister, Rubinstein took over earlier this month after the IDC's founding father, Prof. Uriel Reichman, opted to pursue a political career.
The IDC has undergone rapid growth in only 11 years. A visual metaphor of this expansion has been the IDC campus. Its landscape has changed dramatically over this short period from the original rectangular-shaped British Mandate dormitories to architectural prize-winning faculty buildings.
Goal-directed on nurturing future generations of leadership, the IDC prides itself on its graduates' making their mark on Israeli society. And this could have a knock-on effect on future generations of IDC students.
Two final year law students - David Garbi from Beersheba and former South African Gilad Tuffias from Ra'anana - were not sold on hanging around until after graduation before testing their legal training at the IDC's Radzyner School of Law.
On a quest for social equality, they are taking the ministries of education and finance to the country's highest court - and, until recently, were running the whole show themselves. Garbi and Tuffias drafted all the court papers and only recently briefed an advocate for the final showdown.
When they first broached the subject with the then-dean of their law faculty, Rubinstein advised, "You're en route to becoming lawyers - do it yourselves. It will be excellent experience."
This proved to be excellent advice.
The crux of their petition is that students at private schools such as the IDC are being discriminated against vis- -vis their counterparts at state-sponsored universities.
"We are paying considerably more for the same standard of education, simply because universities receive state subsidies while private institutions are excluded," explains Tuffias.
"Of course, the government argues that this policy is to maintain academic standards and have a say in the management of the institutions they support. Neither argument carries any weight today. Private academic institutes such as the IDC, whose faculty includes lecturers from many of the top Ivy League colleges in the US, have proven to be at the top of their game precisely because of state non-interference."
Annual fees at institutions of higher learning amount to approximately NIS 25,000. While students at state-sponsored universities pay roughly NIS 10,000, those at private schools have to disburse the full amount.
"Grossly discriminatory," balk the two intrepid applicants, whose case has been running in the Supreme Court for nearly two years. With the exigencies of Israeli politics and a concomitant turnover of management in government ministries - Limor Livnat and Benjamin Netanyahu are currently out of the picture - there are always "reasonable" grounds for a postponement.
Undaunted by the maxim "The laws delay," Tuffias and Garbi are in for the long haul. As final year students they are aware that should they succeed in their application, they will not be the beneficiaries of their labor.
"We are doing this for future generations," they proudly assert.
Tuffias explains that instead of punishing the private schools, these institutions should be applauded.
"Until the early 1990s, universities held a monopoly for higher education but were inadequate to meet the demand. Over the years, thousands of school leavers - particularly those from less privileged school environments - saw their dreams dashed by failing to be accepted to the few universities that were available at the time. Some who were fortunate to have wealthy parents studied overseas. Not surprisingly, many of these students would often not return to Israel after graduation, and their talents were lost to a nation that eagerly promotes aliya."
The emergence during the 1990s of prominent private schools dramatically changed this situation as more school leavers had access to higher education. An obvious by-product, contends Tuffias, is that "It has been overwhelmingly positive on the economy. You just have to look at all the alumni of private institutes who today hold high positions in commerce, industry, hi-tech, the professions and government."
So what specifically are Tuffias and Garbi asking the Supreme Court to rule on? Explains Tuffias: "The government-appointed committee that determines the allocation has a budget of NIS 5.4 billion. All we are asking for is an equitable slice of the pie to include the private academic institutions."
Ideally, they want the allocations to operate on the same principle as army graduates who receive a specific sum at the end of their service that can be used solely for education, starting a business or the purchase of a home.
"Once students are accepted on academic merit for a particular school," explains Tuffias, "they would receive vouchers from the state for their fees. In other words, the subsidy from the state will no longer go to the universities but to students directly."
Tuffias argues that this would go a long way "to redress the gross inequalities by making higher education more accessible to the neglected components in our society. While it is taken for granted that an education is considered a basic right in any democracy, the reality is that the cards are stacked and some students are earmarked for a higher education, gearing them for the fast track, while others don't even make it to the track at all. We hope our application will go some way to change this."
Sitting on the bench to adjudicate will be Chief Justice Aharon Barak.
It is difficult to predict how this petition will play out, they agree. But as Tuffias says, "My dream of becoming a lawyer may not have materialized were it not for the emergence of the private schools. Education should not be the exclusive prerogative of the elite."
There is a twist of irony in this legal saga. By the time this matter again returns to court on July 17, the new minister of education may be none other than the founder and former president of the IDC, Prof. Uriel Reichman, now a leading candidate on the Kadima list.
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