Science and politics

Israel's academia is the melting pot for our human capital, ensuring its constant renewal.

avishay braverman 88 224 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
avishay braverman 88 224 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
There are three professors - Avishai Braverman, Daniel Hershkowitz and Yaakov Neeman - serving in the new government. Three additional ministers - Bennie Begin, Uzi Landau and Yuval Steinitz - hold doctorates, and 19 others have either an undergraduate or graduate degree. Add to these two more professors and nine doctors among the Knesset members, as well as several scientists and researchers who have been recruited from institutes of higher education to serve in senior positions within the government. It would appear that academic circles are well-represented in the government elite, and yet one cannot say that academia has had a major impact on this elite. Its contribution toward policy formulation does not properly reflect its potential. The roots of the problem have a complex history. If Plato in his day spoke of government by philosophers, the people of Israel have, throughout history, left the leadership in the hands of its sages. We can even say that the early Zionist movement was carried forward on the shoulders of academics. The fact is that two of its five presidents who served prior to the establishment of the state - Otto Warburg and Chaim Weizmann - were accomplished scholars who did not abandon their scientific endeavors. A considerable share of the Zionist movement's public energy was invested in founding the state's first academic institutions. But the transition from an ideological movement to a national community attempting to establish itself in its historic homeland required creating facts rapidly and instituting centers of power and influence in numerous spheres, not necessarily academic. The limited public resources available were to be devoted primarily for immediate existential needs. Time and time again the rapid pace of events compelled leaders to prefer short-term considerations and actions that highlighted the advantages of men of action - albeit hasty action - over men of wisdom - even profound wisdom. Thus was formed a political reality in which academia was pushed out from the center of the arena to its sidelines. Only a very few were called upon to adorn a list of candidates or managed to make their own way onto such lists. Rarely was academia a source for filling major government positions. At the same time, everyone spoke in praise of academia. The importance of education was mentioned over and over, including that of higher education. But the budgets did not reflect that sentiment: coffers were empty and academia was pushed aside or made irrelevant. The Finance Ministry attempts to dictate to the universities regarding their priorities and allocations. WE MUST admit that academia also bears a certain responsibility for this situation. By its very nature, academia is supposed to rebel against the consensus and not flinch at clashes with the establishment or the price this might entail. Its existence is unimaginable without research and learning for their own sake, void of any considerations of private or collective advantage. Academia cannot afford the luxury of retiring to its ivory towers. It needs to live among the people and to be attentive and aware of its problems. In all honesty, Israeli academia has not always stood up to that test as well as it could have. The challenges that Israel now confronts - from the global economic crisis to Iran's nuclear threat to internal strife - require a clear recognition of the importance of its human capital. Human capital is our main and perhaps only resource, and nurturing it is one of the most important means for guaranteeing the continuation of the Zionist enterprise. Israeli academia is the melting pot for this capital, the breeding ground that will ensure its constant renewal. Therefore, we must provide it with assistance - and be assisted by it. The writer is the president of Bar-Ilan University.