(photo credit: )
On April 10, approximately 250,000 students in some 30 institutions of higher learning (the large universities and a variety of public and private colleges) went on strike. After much sound and fury, road blockages, near-riots, cliff-hanger negotiations and machinations within the student unions, the strike finally ended on May 24. What do the students have to show for scuttling nearly an entire semester? Absolutely nothing.
There's no getting away from it - one of the longest-ever student strikes in this country's history was an exercise in futility, of the sort that ought to provide fine fodder for future scholastic research.
The pretext for student militancy was the Shochat Committee, entrusted with overhauling Israel's higher education. According to rumors, tuition fee hikes were a likely recommendation.
The students demanded no less than the panel's dissolution, veto power on any future fee rises, the reduction of existing fees (as per the 2001 Winograd Committee blueprint) and reimbursing the system for NIS 1 billion worth of past budget cuts (not contingent on the implementation of any Shochat reforms).
Compromises offered to the students included a 4 percent tuition cut and a guarantee to all currently enrolled students that their fees would not be increased. Union representatives rejected this on the grounds that their battle was being waged on behalf of future generations.
What, however, did they finally agree to? In the event that fee hikes are proposed, "a dialogue between the government and the students" will ensue and "students will retain the right to oppose" (not veto) future increases. Moreover, repayment of the lost billion hinges entirely on implementing Shochat restructuring.
The Shochat Committee anyway planned to effect budget increases in tandem with sorely needed reforms (like quality control). The students won nothing that wasn't already in the pipeline and failed to remove conditions attached to restoring funding. The Shochat Committee wasn't disbanded.
The agreement notwithstanding, nothing ever prohibited student opposition to fee hikes, and "dialogue" terminology is meaningless and noncommittal. The students rejected a real decrease in existing fees and a further fee-freeze for all current students, preferring vague outlines of a bird in the bush to two very real birds in their hands.
Especially disconcerting is that the vast student majority allowed itself to be grossly misled by union hotshots, some of whom openly acknowledge that their activism is a calculated stepping stone to political careers.
The student rank-and-file should have discerned the signs of a looming fiasco. Often, student demonstrations were all but hijacked by several hundred extremists waving red flags and screaming for revolution. Protest slogans included anticapitalist, antiprivatization and antiglobalization mantras that plainly had nothing to do with tuition fees. Yet this tiny minority of agitators was able to intimidate hundreds of thousands from returning to their studies.
Moreover, the student union chiefs tinkered with the rules of the game in a manner that enabled them to defeat a majority of pro-compromise delegates. This was done by granting each college, no matter how insignificant, equal weight in the union hierarchy vis-a-vis the largest universities. Thus, the Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Tel Aviv University each had one vote. Again, this outright travesty failed to ignite student outrage.
Most students never bothered to delve into the internal politicking among their representatives. They displayed a perturbing acquiescence to wielding the strike weapon straight away rather than using it as a weapon of last resort. This is a phenomenon with which Israelis are all too familiar; the prolonged sporadic secondary schools teachers' strike is another example. The students' lack of critical thinking and their unquestioning acceptance of Israel's culture of strike do not auger well.
All this should raise our deepest concerns about how these young academics will evaluate more serious issues and political intrigues in years to come, when the state's helm is passed on to their generation. The students didn't objectively investigate issues - such as the fact that tuition fees are anyway relatively very low, while higher government subsidies mean regressive burdens are placed on society's have-nots to support students, including the better-off among them.