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Berkeley Comes to Israel

Protest of tuition fees turns into something deeper -- a way of life


by Larry Derfner

November 26, 1998 | 6:59 pm

At the beginning of this week, dozens of Israeli university students entered the third week of their hunger strike. The country's 175,000 university students entered the second month of their strike from classes. Along the way students have been clubbed and even horsewhipped by police. They've blocked major intersections in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. At times some have even demonstrated in the nude.

All this is utterly unheard of for Israeli college students. They are among the most conservative, grade-obsessed of any in the world. The late-60s passed them by. Thirty years later they are either becoming fiercely idealistic, or are just a little over-infatuated with themselves.

The strike started out with one goal -- to cut tuition in half. But after the students got clubbed and beaten for many days running -- and still went into the streets by the thousands and began the hunger strike -- the protest clearly became something much bigger than a fight for lower tuition.

The focal point of the protest is the hunger strikers' tent opposite the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. Students pace the sidewalks, shouting into bullhorns to win support from passing motorists, many of whom honk in solidarity. The strikers' camaraderie, strengthened by taking police beatings together, is enviable. Israeli adults, including any number of politicians and public figures, come by the tent to encourage the students.

The atmosphere is heady. The watchword in the protest now is "social revolution." The students have attracted tremendous sympathy, mainly from the middle-class left and center.

The government seems to be split over the strike. Communications Minister Limor Livnat, who began her political career as a right-wing activist at Tel Aviv University, warned that the students have "a political agenda," meaning that they are anti-government, which the strikers deny.

Some other ministers have voiced their support for the protest. Prime Minister Netanyahu -- as if he doesn't have enough disunity in his ranks -- scolded the ministers who had shown a soft spot for the students, because, he said, this weakened the government's "solid front" against them.

But Netanyahu hasn't been leading at the front; that task has been taken up by Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman, a 60ish, multimillionaire attorney and stern economic conservative. With his thick glasses and ponderous way of talking, he is the perfect foil for the students.

Of late, Netanyahu has stepped into the negotiations, and is trying to portray himself as understanding the students' cause, and ready to work out reforms. He had scheduled all-night negotiations with the students Sunday night, but the strike leaders didn't show, saying the finance ministry had been spreading "disinformation" about the protest.

The Histadrut National Union has entered into a covenant. The union pledged that if a settlement of the student strike was not reached, the union would hold a nationwide general strike on Wednesday in solidarity. Student leaders, for their part, have promised to back the union in its battles for job security and better wages and conditions for workers.

Yet while the protest has captured Israeli hearts, a cool-headed examination of the strike's goals yields a number of doubts, and these have been expressed by critics from the left, right and center.

The key criticism is that tuition in Israel's seven public universities currently runs below $2,500 a year -- possibly the best bargain in this country. With many public school pupils going home as early as noon, with public school fees costing parents hundreds of dollars a year per pupil, should university tuition now be cut in half?

"In Israel there are at least 10 groups which a 'social revolution' should aid before it aids university students: residents of poor, backwater towns; single-parent families; low-ranking public servants; marginalized new immigrants; the unemployed; high school drop-outs, and the list goes on," wrote Ma'ariv columnist Rafi Mann, who accused the students of wrapping a pocketbook-oriented strike in "pseudo-ideology."

When Israeli university students are compared with their counterparts in the West, it is always pointed out that the Israelis have it much rougher. Because of the army, they usually don't start university until they're 21 or older. Many male students do weeks of army reserve duty every year. Many are married, and many work to pay their way through.

There is no tradition of "campus life" in Israel, partly because in such a small country, nobody "goes away" to college. Students stay close to their parents and friends. Unlike the West, Israelis do not "come of age" at college; they do that in the army. By the time they get to college, they're already basically grown up. They don't do crazy things and they don't sacrifice themselves and risk their necks for any causes.

Until now. Maybe this is the underlying reason why the student strikers have won so many hearts (if fewer minds): they're providing a glimpse of what Israel could be like if it were a "normal" country where young people didn't have to spend so much time carrying guns. A place where they had the freedom to be young.

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