What is Simhat Torah, if not the learners rejoicing in their Torah and the Torah rejoicing in its learners? Yet a report on the decline in the status of our learning, which has been published extensively in lands across the sea, has escaped notice here, of all places.
This week, it emerged that not a single Israeli university is on the list of the world's leading universities. According to the list that appears in The Times Higher Education Supplement, Israel is not represented among the top 100 places. It is possible perhaps to find some small comfort in the fact that three of our universities place in the top 200. The Hebrew University placed 119th, dropping 42 places in comparison to last year. Tel Aviv University found itself in 147th place, having moved up 41 places. The Technion also edged upward, to 158th place.
It is also possible to take comfort in the knowledge that this is not the only list that ranks institutions of higher education, though it is considered particularly prestigious. It is possible, of course, to have reservations about the ranking criteria, but it is worth paying attention to the joyous reactions of the institutions that moved up the list and the mournful reactions of the institutions that slipped down: These give an idea of the importance that the academic world attributes to the traditional ranking in The Times Supplement.
Placement is determined by the opinions of 3,703 senior academics from all over the world, as well as those of 736 major international employers. Also factored in are the ratio between students and faculty members, the number of major academic publications, the rate of absorption of international faculty alongside local faculty, and the percentage of foreign students.
It is not surprising that American and British universities lead the pack, but it is surprising that the top 100 universities represent no less than 20 countries and the top 200 represent 30 countries. Ahead of the Israeli universities are universities in China, Australia, France, Singapore, Japan, Canada, Switzerland, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Denmark, India, Germany, South Korea, Holland, Mexico, Belgium, Ireland, Austria and Russia.
In recent years, many Israelis have been surprised to discover that their children rank at the bottom of the achievement list when compared to children from 41 developed countries. This discovery has been humiliating, but mainly worrying: What do we have here apart from "the Jewish mind," our golden treasure? And suddenly, it is a calf. Little children, as everyone knows, are not allowed to "go up" to read from the Torah. Only at Simhat Torah are they given, en masse, an aliyah - an opportunity to "go up" to the Torah. And all the sweet calves take part in the aliyahs and hakafot (marching around with the Torah to joyful singing), with little flags in their hands.
And again, in order to take comfort, we lured ourselves into believing that though we have a problem down below - in the elementary and high schools - up there, at the university level, Israel was assured of excellence and its qualitative advantage is secure: Though the passenger cars were miserable and dragging along exhausted, the engine - higher education - was tremendously powerful, able to pull an entire country uphill. From the depths of failure and ignorance - so we believed - the engine would leap forward with all its strength, inhaling deeply and whistling at the top, and pull us out into the illuminated and enlightened expanse of the globe.
And again, we were proven wrong: The education train, from head to tail, is plodding along like the Valley Train - slow and smoking - and does not at all resemble the modern trains that gallop to their destinations at the speed of the light of literacy.
Professor Roger Kornberg of Stanford University won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry this week. Kornberg is half Israeli, a visiting professor at Hebrew University, and his wife, Yaheli Lorch, is a full Israeli scientist. This week, in Jerusalem, he said: "The Israeli education system is in dire and dangerous shape. The cuts in education will pursue you in a few more years. If the situation is not reassessed, a significant regression is liable to emerge in the output of Israeli achievements. There is a limit to how much can be achieved with so little funding." Yaheli Lorch, who is a member of the family, was less polite: "For 20 years now we have been spending a few months at the Hebrew University, and we have seen how each year, the ranks of the scientists have dwindled in a shocking way. Somebody has to shake up the government."
But instead of rescuing our universities, whose status has declined, the government has continued to cut back on planting saplings - and the cutting hand has been extended this year, as well. And instead of investing more in the lackluster existing stock, it is making a middling college in a West Bank settlement into an inferior university that will beg at the same locked gates.
From Simhat Beit Hashoeva (the festival of drawing water, celebrated on Sukkot) to Simhat Torah, anyone who has never seen these festivals has never seen rejoicing. But it is not by chance that it is on Sukkot that it is customary to read the contemplative Book of Ecclesiastes, which in its wisdom establishes a boundary to rejoicing. It is Ecclesiastes who recommends investing for the long term - casting bread upon the waters. But here, they continue to dance and sing in front of the empty ark as if there were no tomorrow, as if no one cares about what still remains or what has been lost over time, as if, indeed, everything were vanity of vanities.
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