Tuesday, 22 May 2007

The students strike back

I never left England because I was running away. I love England – I enjoyed growing up there, studying and working there. I like English sport and culture, and I was really fond of the English sense of fair play. There were however moments of discomfort, when I felt that ‘fair play’ was getting steamrolled. One of those moments came when the AUT, the Higher Education Union, voted for an academic boycott of Israel. Although the motion was eventually reversed – after a tough fight – it was a reminder that there are some people who really don’t like us and know exactly how to hurt us – education. Jews and Israelis have never been the greatest sportsmen or fashion icons, but when it comes to academia, we’re well up there.

As tends to happen with our people, when our enemies aren’t succeeding, we normally know the best way to help them along. England’s Israel-bashing academics might not have succeeded for now to damage Israel’s universities, but we’re doing a pretty good job at doing it ourselves. Following the release of the Shochat Report which included a recommendation to raise tuition fees, Israel’s students went on strike. For a third of this semester, they did anything besides sitting in lectures, classes and the library. Students who crossed the picket line spoke of harassment and academic sabotage.

Ask an Englishman what characterises a student, and you’ll be told drinking, partying and sex. Studying comes a distant fourth. A friend of mine pointed out that if English students ever suggested that they would strike, they would be met with a chorus of laughter. A strike requires not working, which most students ably do most of the academic year! But in Israel education is sacred, students tend to do a fair amount of work and the thought of empty classrooms is of real concern.

We Israelis pay massive taxes of which a large chunk goes into defence. After that, you’ve got feeding the poor, improving our schools and hospitals, paying our public service workers properly, caring for elderly Holocaust survivors etc etc. The list is endless and there simply isn’t the money to go round. The students are theoretically right – they shouldn’t have to pay any more – but cutbacks have to be made somewhere.

After 37 days, the student leaders have finally agreed with the Prime Minister’s Office to halt the strike and get back to class. The fees will be frozen for a year, but after that, it’s anyone’s guess. When the issue comes around again – for goodness sake – let’s deal with it without another self-inflicted academic boycott.

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