Education: Striking while the iron is hot

Students seized the release of the Winograd Report this week to heat up their struggle.

student strike 88 (photo credit: )
student strike 88
(photo credit: )
A quarter of a million students here have been on strike for more than three weeks now. Despite multiple attempts at resolving the crisis, no compromise was reached, and neither side in the dispute felt it needed to surrender the battle. Now, with the Winograd Report casting its heavy shadow over the political echelon, the students sense their victory is near at hand. The government, they believe, won't want another accusation of failure to continue to be hurled at it via newspaper headlines and TV broadcasts. The strike has not been easy. Classes have been canceled, papers have gone unread and grades have been unattainable for those trying to apply to graduate schools or overseas academic institutions. Indeed, by the strike's second week, signs of disaffection with its results were evident everywhere. One union, that of Haifa's Technion, even canceled the strike briefly before reinstating it, following criticism by the National Union of Israeli Students. But the rejection of the strikes on the part of some students remained isolated. For most, the time seems ripe for activism. When their rejection of the Shochat Committee's lack of student representation went unheeded, the students launched the strike against three perceived opponents: Education Minister Yuli Tamir, who agreed to the committee's establishment; committee head Avraham Shochat and his "neoliberal anti-education ideology" (in the words of one union activist); and, always in the background, the "unfeeling" machinations of the "all-powerful Treasury boys," to use what has become the catch-phrase of Israeli politics. After the collapse of a deal with Tamir, announced a few days into the strike, and while establishing a separate committee to examine tuition policy, student union leaders Itay Shonshine and Itay Barda declared that they would negotiate only with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "Olmert holds the keys to any agreement. Only he can resolve this strike," Barda repeatedly explained to the media. This shift in focus was not merely personal. The students expected - or hoped - that a prime minister embattled by the then-pending Winograd Report would relent to their demands, if doing so would help secure his political survival. Now, following Monday's publication of the report, the student unions are more convinced than ever that they have a chance of prevailing in their battle. Whereas the student campaign's focus shifted in the second week to a demand that Olmert negotiate personally with the unions (with taunts of "Olmert, higher education isn't real estate; it isn't for sale," and with many students expressing bitterness that the prime minister "doesn't even give a damn that we're on strike"), since Monday, it has taken a sharp, directly anti-Olmert turn. During last Wednesday's demonstration in Tel Aviv, in which dozens of students (33 of whom were arrested by police) blocked the Ayalon expressway, signs of this turn were ubiquitous. Added to the usual slogans of "No education, no country!" - and even the occasional chanting of bawdy soldiers' songs, such as: "Prostitutes are screwed for money; we're screwed for free!" - were serious calls for Olmert to resign. For the first time in the course of the strike, union leaders and activists in their signature red shirts sought to attach the rally's cause to the general national theme - as expressed in nearly all polls since Monday - of demanding that the prime minister step down. "The decision to call for Olmert to resign comes from the general spirit of the country," said student activist Yehuda Duhan, a psychology major at the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel, who attended Wednesday's demonstration in Tel Aviv with many friends from the Ariel student union. "After [the release of the] Winograd [Interim Report], the students must join Thursday's rally against the government," added another student - a music education major and self-proclaimed "proud reservist." "We should have done this from the beginning. The students have lost faith in the government, and we have to join forces with the other organizations that have lost faith," he said. PERHAPS SENSING the unions' effortless slip into a more politically dangerous mode, and due to their agreement to join Thursday's rally in force, Prime Minister's Office officials have been producing increasingly generous proposals over the last few days, offering to freeze, or even lower, tuition for the upcoming year and to delay implementation of the Shochat recommendations for a year or more. But these recommendations fall well short of the students' basic demands, which include lowering annual tuition by an additional NIS 2,500, and replacing the Shochat Committee with a committee headed by an "impartial judge," not an "admitted neoliberal former finance minister," in the words of one student union leader. The unions have apparently read these recommendations as signs of weakness, with union leaders noting the quick collapse since last week of Olmert's refusal to negotiate with them. Yet the political crisis may also be the students' greatest barrier to extracting concessions. With the prime minister fighting for political survival, the finance minister suspending himself due to an investigation into alleged financial improprieties and the education minister long sidelined by the students' own strategy, it is unclear if the student strike has registered on the over-full political bandwidth. Compared to the fallout of Winograd, and with high school teachers on strike and a heating up of the Gaza front, are the students really high on the prime minister's agenda? "If he hasn't noticed us until now, he'll have to deal with us after we've joined the rallies against him," one activist told The Jerusalem Post in a quiet, explanatory tone to the nods of fellow red shirts. "The prime minister's refusal to deal with the students is not that different from his failure in the war. Both times, it was a combination of arrogance and incompetence that did him in."