'Emerging Democracy' Among Students Keeps Strike Alive

A rumor spread among the students at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva Monday night that the student council was going to sign a compromise with the government and end the strike. Toward midnight, a group of some 500 students who refused to accept the "surrender" or its representatives gathered on campus. They were angry.

In this strike, now 28 days old, students are refusing to accept the pattern of earlier strikes where thousands of students demonstrated but a small group of leaders decided when to end the action and what agreement to sign.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's associates yesterday slammed the strike, telling the Website NRG that it was being led by "two punks" who were conducting their own election campaign on the backs of the students.

At Ben-Gurion University as well as other universities and colleges, the student unions seem to have lost control of events. Unlike previous struggles led by politicians of the future, this one is being taken over by grassroots elements who are preventing a return to the lecture halls that many of the student leaders would have been happy to see last week.

According to the compromise agreement between the students' representatives and Olmert's people hammered out late Monday night, the Shochat Committee's planned tuition hike would not apply to students currently enrolled. The head of the Israel Students Organization, representing the colleges, called it "sacrificing the future generations." The chairman of the Israel Students Union, Itai Shonshein, also rejected it.

Once the agreement became known, things happened quickly. A demonstration to be held in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem became a demonstration against the agreement. Spontaneous campaigns started on the various campuses to send cellphone text messages to the heads of students' unions. Many showed up at a meeting of the union heads in Rishon Letzion to pressure the leaders into refusing the agreement.

Open mike

The students meeting on the Ben-Gurion campus Monday night were excited by what some called the "emerging democracy" of the protest. The microphone was given to nearly everyone who had an opinion.

A moment before the vote was taken by the Ben-Gurion union leaders, in an attempt to prevent the council members from changing their minds, the council secretary told the members that "it's inconceivable for the public to influence you like this." But the public did influence them, and at 1:30 A.M. the decision came. "The Ben-Gurion Student Council rejects the agreement," the secretary announced, and a cheer went up.

At Tel Aviv Academic College students were informed by email that the union head and the college president had decided to stop the strike. But small groups of students went around the classrooms to explain that the other institutions were still striking, and the students were soon out protesting again.

The struggle cannot be pigeonholed as "socialist." On the contrary, the students have no shared social platform, but are trying to determine the kind of higher education they want. They wonder what difference it will make if a billion shekels are returned to the budget if privatization policies are pursued.

The chairman of the Committee of University Heads (CUH), Professor Moshe Kaveh, told Israel Radio yesterday that the CUH was not threatening to cancel the semester, but if the strike went on, the semester would be canceled on its own for students who did not come to class.