Borderline Views: Beersheba’s silent campus

The silence at BGU is only interspersed with the intermittent sound of sirens as a fresh wave of missiles is fired toward Beersheba.

Ben Gurion University 370 (photo credit: Courtesy of Ben Gurion University)
Ben Gurion University 370
(photo credit: Courtesy of Ben Gurion University)
Today is the anniversary of the passing of Israel’s first and legendary prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. Each year on Ben-Gurion Day, a state ceremony is held at his gravesite at Sdeh Boker, attended by the country’s leaders. This is followed by an honorary doctorate ceremony at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, at which leading personalities are honored, in addition to those honored at the annual Board of Governors meetings in the spring.
But two days ago, after months of preparation, the university announced that the ceremony had been postponed until a later date, due to semi-war conditions which have prevailed in this region for the past week. Since last Thursday the university has all but ceased to function. Classes have been cancelled, administrative staff told to stay at home, and most other meetings and research seminars postponed or cancelled.
Beersheba, along with most other towns in the south of the country, are functioning at half pace, schools have been shut and other public gatherings have been cancelled. No one can take the risk of a missile from Gaza slipping through the Iron Dome defense system and striking a classroom, a lecture hall or a theater audience. The Homefront Command has insisted that, until further notice, all public ceremonies, even the annual Ben-Gurion Day awards, are to be put on hold while the government and the army deal with the threat emanating from Gaza.
Driving into Beersheba and the university campus these past few days has been an eerie experience.
On Sunday morning in particular, normally the beginning of an action-packed week on campus, with thousands of students returning from weekends spent back home in Tel Aviv or further north, this was reflected by half empty roads and a totally empty campus. There is a deadly silence about the place, reminiscent of a weekend or even Yom Kippur.
The silence is only interspersed with the intermittent sound of sirens as a fresh wave of missiles is fired toward Beersheba, or the other towns in the region. Most are prevented from hitting their targets by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, but on occasion a missile gets through, causing damage to apartment blocks, cars and shops, and killing or wounding those who were not quick enough to get into the shelters. No such chance could be taken at the university or in the schools – and it is not yet clear when full classes will resume. Even following the partial return to work of the administrative staff yesterday, most workers stay at home to look after their children, whose schools are still closed.
There will be long-term implications for the students called up to reserve duty if the government decides to undertake an incursion into Gaza itself.
When classes do eventually resume, many of them will be with their army units and will be prevented from returning to their studies. The university will find every possible way to enable them to make up for missed classes and examinations.
It is enough that most of them have already given three or four years of their life to military service prior to their commencing their studies. We would have hoped that at the very least they could enjoy three years of uninterrupted studies. But the reality of living in Israel in 2012 does not afford them that privilege, and once again they are called to arms.
University students in this country do not have an easy life. They begin their studies some three to four years after most of their counterparts elsewhere in the world. Many of them have undergone experiences in the army which have made them mature and grow up in a way that 20-yearolds elsewhere in the world have not. And even when they have finished their army service, it is not easy for them to fund their tuition and living expenses for three or four years of full time study.
There is no national system of automatic grants or government loans to assist them. Most of them have no option but to take on part-time jobs, limiting their ability to devote themselves to full-time study or to spend time enjoying the many extracurricular social and cultural activities which should be an integral part of the university experience.
They are older, they want to finish their degree and settle down. They want to get a job and, if possible, by the age of 30, an age when their counterparts in North America or Western Europe are well established, get a full time job and begin to make a living.
For these students, a renewed call to reserve duty, a call to which they, along with countless other Israeli citizens, respond without hesitation, will make the completion of their studies that bit more difficult than it already was. Meanwhile successive Israeli governments have cut investment in higher education during the past decade, with students being forced to pay higher tuition fees and universities having to find ways of raising funds in an increasingly tight global economy.
Our students deserve easier and better conditions, but it has become increasingly difficult for them to survive in a world where the available public resources are becoming scarcer and scarcer.
Privatizing the universities to make up for government cuts is not the answer, as this results in lower academic standards, higher tuition fees which can only be paid by those who come from families with available resources, and preference for those areas of teaching and research which are measured by their profit margins and efficiency rather than their wider contribution to society.
The government will argue that the additional cost of the present war will make it even more difficult to fund public goods such as cheaper or even free education, let alone increase budgets, in the coming year. Wars, especially in the age of technological warfare of long-range sophisticated missiles, unmanned drones, and satellite technology, is an expensive business and will always drain a country of badly needed resources.
University students, professing a wide range of political opinions, do not constitute a single unified political lobby which would force a government into budgeting for their education, as the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) lobby does for the yeshiva students. The failure of their social protest during the past two years to have any meaningful impact on government policy is clear for all to see, and is likely to be perpetuated by the coming elections.
They continue to give most and to receive least.
In the face of missiles and an impending ground incursion into Gaza, it may seem to be an irrelevance to write about the cancelling of a ceremony or two. Lives are at stake and the country is in emergency mode. But it is this disruption of normal life, of having to close down schools and universities, of increasing the burden on the public budgets, of forcing us into changing the banality of daily life, where our enemies are succeeding even as they ultimately suffer yet another military defeat.
It was Ben-Gurion, whose yartzheit should have been honored today, who stated that his dream was to see the State of Israel become a normal state, with all the “normal” problems experienced by every other state in the world.
This week’s silent campus, the postponement of the honorary doctorate ceremony in his name, along with the diversion of scarce public resources from education to warfare, is evidence of the fact that, despite the many achievements of the state and its universities, we are still a long way from achieving that goal.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at BGU, the views expressed are his own.