Decades in Waiting, Israelis Seize Their Chance to Win Rhodes Scholarships

Palestinians, too, as the ultra-prestigious program branches out to students from parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Maayan Roichman, an Israeli Rhodes scholar.
The Rhodes Trust

OXFORD, England This October, when the fall term begins, thousands of wide-eyed students will descend upon this beautiful old university town hopes, dreams and laptops in hand.

Getting into Oxford is no easy feat. In 2016, when some 19,400 highly qualified young men and women applied for undergraduate study and 26,000 for graduate study, Oxford took in 3,200 undergrads and 5,300 graduate students.

Then, among this crème de la crème, there’s even more crème – those who win the top merit scholarships or get the coveted all-expenses-paid academic awards. And among these, the cherries on top are the winners of the 113-year-old Rhodes scholarships, arguably the most celebrated award at arguably the most prestigious university in the world.

U.S. President Bill Clinton was a Rhodes scholar, as was Pakistani President Wasim Sajjad, three Australian prime ministers, a president of Malta and a prime minister of Canada. Three Nobel Prize winners have been scholars, and other stars have also spent formative years here, from talk show host Rachel Maddow to musician Kris Kristofferson, who like Clinton was one of the few scholars who never actually finished a degree.

In total, there have been 7,776 Rhodes scholars from 45 different countries over the years. Some 4,700 of them are still living – and an impressive number are in leadership positions around the world.

“We are looking for exceptional minds, but also for character and commitment to others and to the common good,” says Charles Conn, the warden of the Rhodes Trust, which administers the scholarship. “We want people who have an impatience with the world as it is and a desire to change it and make it better.”

This year, for the first time, a duo of Israelis will be welcomed into this elite Rhodes family: Nadav Lidor and Maayan Roichman, two charismatic and exceptionally bright 26-year-old Tel Avivians who made it through an impossibly competitive selection process and were chosen as the inaugural Israeli scholars. The following year, two more Israelis will be handpicked. Soon there will be about six Israeli Rhodes scholars at Oxford at any given time, some doing master’s degrees, others PhDs.

Nadav Lidor, an Israeli Rhodes scholar.
The Rhodes Trust

Throughout the years, many Israelis have attended – and excelled – at Oxford, where a full 63 percent of the graduate students hail from outside the United Kingdom. As of last year, according to Oxford, 22 Israelis were enrolled as full-time graduate students at the university’s various colleges, several of them on some form of scholarship program. But until now, none of the Israelis had the opportunity to apply to the Rhodes.

The legacy of Cecil Rhodes

Endowed by 19th-century British diamond-mining magnate and colonialist Cecil Rhodes, these scholarships were initially given annually to 57 young men (women were only included 40 years ago) from the United States, Germany and various parts of what was then the British Empire. Rhodes’ will stipulated that each scholar would receive paid tuition and a stipend – a sum that in today’s terms roughly translates into about 55,000 pounds ($68,750) a year, good for two to three years of a graduate course.

Rhodes scholars, then as now, belong to different colleges and disciplines throughout the university, but they often meet for seminars, speaker events, study hours in the Rhodes House Library (where the shelves are stacked with books by former Rhodes scholars), retreats and even – a sign of the times – meditation and yoga classes. Conn likens the experience of the scholarship to “a boot camp for moral leadership.”

The addition of the two Israeli spots in 2017 comes as part of a historic geographic expansion of the Rhodes scholarship, with graduate students from China, Malaysia, Nigeria and Ghana all being included as well. “Our aspiration is to be more and more global,” Conn says. “And we are doing outreach work with universities around the world so as to build up our community, and actively seeking funding partners.” This year's cohort will have 95 first-year Rhodes scholars – the largest incoming class ever – and about 250 studying at Oxford in total.

Among the newcomers to this year’s class, along with the Israelis, will be scholars from the United Arab Emirates and from a group of candidates from Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine (the SJLP group). Palestinians with Israeli nationality, incidentally, are allowed to apply both for the SJLP category and the Israeli spots.

And two Palestinians are joining this year. Hashem Abushama from the Arroub refugee camp scored 98.8 percent on the Palestinian high school national exam and went to Earlham College in Indiana on a full scholarship. Nur Arafeh, who grew up in East Jerusalem, was the valedictorian at the Lycee Francais de Jerusalem and attended Sciences Po in France, also on a full scholarship.

Arduous process

“The whole thing kind of reminded me of ‘The Hunger Games,’” says Lidor, a graduate from the army’s elite 8200 intelligence unit, who was born on Kibbutz Ein Zivan in the Golan Heights and studied in Hebrew University’s honors humanities program for two years before transferring to Stanford. He’s referring to what some might call the arcane Rhodes admission process, which involves not only getting top grades, penning several personal essays and gathering five to eight recommendations, but also, in the final round, taking part in a nail-biting two-day selection process.

Armed with his Stanford degree in computer science and symbolic systems, Lidor was just settling in with roommates in Tel Aviv, working at Google and plotting his next steps in life when he heard that the Rhodes was opening up to Israelis. And while usually the scholarship’s cut-off age is 25, if you’ve served in the military, it’s 28, so Lidor could apply too.

And so he did, along with an estimated 100 others. In November he was invited to a small gathering in Jerusalem with 12 other finalists. These youngsters, decked out in their Jerusalem approximation of cocktail best, mingled the evening away, getting to know one another – as the committee chosen to evaluate them wandered around chatting, observing and taking in the scene.

After this undoubtedly very natural social gathering, the group reconvened the following morning for a full day of interviews, during which the finalists passed the time seated together as one by one (according to slots they had picked out of a hat) they entered the committee room for their interviews. Once the first round of interviews was done, some – but not all – of the candidates were called back in for further questioning.

“We want everyone on the selection committee to feel like we picked the best of the candidates, so, if the committee is deadlocked, we will call the candidates in for further questioning,” explains Doron Weber, an author and foundation executive in New York, who headed the Israel committee.

Conn and Israeli-born Weber, a former Rhodes scholar himself who headed the Rhodes committee in New York State for over a decade, were driving forces behind the Israel recruitment process. “We try to find out who these young people are, what they are made of, and how they handle pressure,” Weber says.

Other members of the committee in Israel this year were Nadine Baudot-Trajtenberg, a deputy governor of the Bank of Israel; Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran; David Carel, a Yale graduate and Rhodes scholar with ties to Israel; and Carmit Levy, a respected scientist at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Human Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry. Canadian politician Bob Rae was also part of the effort, assisting with choosing the finalists.

At the very end of the grueling selection day, all the candidates are called into the room together and the winners are announced, right then and there. “It was maybe a little awkward,” admits Lidor with a smile. “Everyone was supportive,” insists Roichman, an anthropologist who is perhaps more used to observing such rites of passage and community dynamics than being the focus of them.

A star high school student and semiprofessional windsurfer, Roichman went to Tel Aviv University at age 15, served in the army as a guide at the Palmach Museum, and did a BA degree all over again as a Lautman Interdisciplinary Program scholar at Tel Aviv University. She long knew she wanted to go to Oxford, and like Lidor, she didn’t realize until almost the last minute that the Rhodes scholarship was an option for her.

A lot of people in Israel, she notes, still don’t know too much about the Rhodes. But if anyone needs information, she laughs, her dad will happily fill in the gaps. The other day he sprained his ankle, and when she went with him to the hospital, he proceeded to tell all the nurses, doctors and any patient within earshot about the scholarship.

“They had no idea what he was talking about,” she says. “But now they do.”