Students and social activism

Universities take pride when their students volunteer to help underprivileged children in the local community, but they aren’t so happy when they take on political issues.

Social protests yelling 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Social protests yelling 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
University students in this country are older than their counterparts almost anywhere else in the world. Most of them have spent a minimum of three years in the army, those with officer rank an additional year or two, while many of them have also done a year of voluntary social work before their army service and/or have spent a year traveling, getting the army out of their system, before finally settling down to another three or four years of hard study. By the time that most of them have finished their first degrees, they are often in their late twenties. Many already have family responsibilities with partners, spouses and children, meaning they probably also have part-time jobs, making the completion of their studies even more difficult.
That is why it is even more amazing that such a high percentage of university students get involved in social and welfare projects during the course of their studies. Most notable is the Perach project, partially funded by the government, through which students take time out on a regular basis during the week to assist and tutor children from disadvantaged backgrounds and help bring them up to a level where they too will be able to matriculate from school with a proper education.
In many cases, these kids are from homes where the basics of education are still unknown, where their parents are unable to offer them the financial, social or knowledge support which is so important for young children in their formative years of schooling.
There are tens of thousands of children and teenagers in this country who have succeeded in attaining higher levels of achievement as a result of the involvement of university students in the Perach project.
Students engaged in this program do receive partial tuition payments or grants in return for their work, but for most of them it would be a lot easier simply to take a temporary job elsewhere and to earn their tuition in other ways. Dealing with children from disadvantaged backgrounds and broken homes, in some of the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Beersheba and the development towns of the Negev can not simply be switched off after each meeting, in the same way that a factory worker or waiter can simply clock out.
ALL THE country’s universities are part of the Perach program but in percentage terms, Ben-Gurion University is by far the most involved. This is for two main reasons. First, parts of Beersheba and some of the outlying development towns, such as Ofakim, Netivot, Sderot, Mitzpe Ramon, Dimona and Yeruham, and the neighboring Beduin communities such as Rahat, Tel Sheva, Laqiya and Hora have the highest regional concentration of children with lower educational skills and poorer socio-economic conditions in the country.
Second, unlike the country’s other universities, Ben-Gurion University has, from its inception, targeted social activism and involvement in local communities as a priority.
It is not sufficient simply to sit within the gated community and pursue academic excellence (which BGU does very well anyway).
The university believes that it is of critical importance to the development of the state as a whole, and the Negev region in particular, to move beyond the fences of the gated community and the ivory tower, and to make a positive contribution to the region and its inhabitants.
Students are also involved in many other social action programs throughout Beersheba and the region. One of the most impressive is the Open Apartments Program which has been running for over 30 years. Students live in rent-free apartments located in the socio-economically challenged neighborhoods of the city, in exchange for which they share their personal and academic skills with local residents.
Presently, there are over 60 apartments, housing about 100 students. In addition to organizing recreational clubs and classes, students also adopt families and offer personal counseling and support.
Almost 100 clubs and classes were organized in the past year alone, involving programs for almost 500 residents, ranging from sports, exercise classes, art and extramural education.
The Open Apartments program has now been recognized by the Council of Higher Education as a legitimate university project, along with other social involvement courses and teaching programs which are taught by faculty in such diverse departments as the Department of Social Work, the Department of Education and the Department of Politics and Government, where it funds a course on human rights.
Another program is the Ayalim project, in which university students are involved in creating communes within the city, or new villages in the country’s peripheral regions. Founded in 2002, there are approximately 600 students in twelve student villages in both the Negev and the Galilee. There has been some criticism of this program in that it is earmarked for Jewish students only, but it has brought new life to unsettled areas and to rundown urban neighborhoods, which would not have taken place otherwise. Within these villages, students create their own communities and contribute to the wider region in addition to pursuing their studies.
Student involvement and student activism go hand in hand. Universities would like their students to be involved in the sorts of programs described here, but they are more reticent when it comes to allowing students to actively participate in political and social protest. Some universities place constraints on the holding of political meetings and activities on campus, arguing that students have come to study and to obtain their degree, and that political activism on campus causes disruption, tensions and may even lead to violence.
At Ben-Gurion University, students were even put in front of a disciplinary committee following their participation in right- and left-wing demonstrations following the Gaza flotilla episodes, while other demonstrations of a political nature are not allowed to take place on campus itself. But as long as such activities do not lead to violence or incitement, every type of social and political activism, including the organization of student branches of political parties (which are banned at some universities) should be allowed, and even encouraged, as part of the process through which our students prepare themselves, not only to have a profession, but also to be future leaders and activists when they step out into the real world.
There is no dividing line or artificial border separating social involvement and awareness on the one hand, and political activism and protest on the other. One only has to look at the major role played by students in the tent protests of the past year, along with the direct involvement of many university faculty who actively participated and helped raise social awareness of the issues. Universities must not detach themselves from the real world, and it is to their credit that so many of our young adults, despite the advanced age at which they enter the halls of study, are prepared to participate in, and contribute to, the wider society within which they live.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.