Israeli university students are criticized for never demonstrating, as long as their tuition isn't raised. But their current protest, about their conditions of study as compared with yeshiva students, is absolutely justified.
It turns out that the government favors yeshiva students more than the university students thought. Not only is the government encouraging the yeshiva students not to work, now it also intends to cut back on scholarships granted mainly to Ph.D students and researchers.
Even without getting into the debate about the tens of thousands who are not studying but still enjoy government stipends granted to those "whose work is Torah study," there is something twisted about the populistic incitement by MKs from United Torah Judaism and Shas who describe the students as freewheeling partiers. The very comparison of university students to yeshiva students is outrageous.
While Torah study is presented in the political debate as a supreme value over which governments rise and fall, academic studies have become an economic privilege because of the distorted priorities of all of Israel's governments.
Higher education is the basis of Israel's economic growth, and university or college studies provide a vital entry ticket into most professions in the job market. But unlike their colleagues in Europe or the United States, Israeli students are compelled to deal with a complicated economic reality. High tuition, exorbitant rental prices and a lack of dormitory space force them to work. They begin studying at a relatively older age, after army service, and many raise a family during their studies. Many students serve a month each year in the army reserves.
The students' struggle expresses the desired priorities of the state, and that is why lecturers, university heads and anyone who values Israel's intellectual life and practical accomplishments should join them. While it sets up "centers of excellence" with one hand to bring home academics who have left for jobs abroad, the government should understand that with its other hand it is pushing the same people out.
Higher education is not merchandise in the political bazaar. It is a universal right and a valuable national asset that should be promoted, without giving preference to the yeshivas.
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