'Students Shouldn't Be Holding People Ransom'

Yoav Fisher could not have hoped for a better internship than the one he secured with a New York-based economic consulting company planning to open a branch in Israel. The only trouble for the 28-year-old economics student is that as a result of the six-week student strike which ended this week, his end-of-semester exams will only take place after his internship commences July 1.

"I've had to drop one of my classes and my other two classes are going to be very difficult to complete," says Fisher, who grew up in Northern California and came to Israel to study for his master's degree at Tel Aviv University. "I will have to study virtually - online - and do the exams in a year's time. It's frustrating but it's what I need to do to balance between my academic needs and fulfilling the internship."

Another Tel Aviv University student, Evan Castle, is supposed to be starting a master's degree at the London School of Economics in September, but he too is having problems as a result of the strike. "I have to finish my studies here to get all the credits I need for the course in London. The time frame which existed before the strike was manageable, but now I won't be able to finish on time. I suppose I will have to approach [LSE] and explain my situation. They might make me defer for a year or a semester."

While Fisher is fiercely critical of the student union's actions ("It would have been better to sit outside Bank Leumi until they agreed to give students better rates on loans," he says), Castle is more supportive, but he concludes: "It doesn't really matter whether I am sympathetic or not, I still need to get my courses done."

The 41-day strike, led by the national student union, called for the lowering of tuition fees and a halt to moves to privatize the higher education system.

Early Tuesday morning, student leaders signed a compromise deal with the Prime Minister's Office, ending the strike. Though some activists complained that the union came away with little to show for their weeks of protest, most students returned to classes yesterday, while the remainder will return Sunday. It is likely that for most students, the current semester will not be canceled but rather extended by a few weeks.

According to Fisher, the strike has posed particular problems for students from English-speaking countries, a high proportion of whom had lined up internships, further studies, visits home and other commitments abroad, which are now in jeopardy. One couple interviewed by Anglo File is even considering postponing their wedding as a result of the strike.

"The overwhelming bulk of Anglo students are used to a very different academic culture," says Fisher. "The concept of a student strike is unheard of in the U.S. The last time that I know of a major student strike there was during the Vietnam War and that had nothing to do with academia. The concept of not going to school seems to be a uniquely Israeli thing. No one in the U.S. is willing to risk the amount of money it costs to get an education there."

Benjamin Weiner, a Boston-born rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia who is studying in Israel for a year, sees it differently. He too has problems to solve as a result of the strike - he has already booked his ticket back to the U.S. for early July and does not know if he will manage to get the credits he needs from his two courses at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in order to graduate on time - but he is impressed by the Israeli student protests nonetheless.

"I'm instinctively supportive of the students and their efforts to advocate for themselves," he told Anglo File this week. "In the U.S. you encounter a lot of apathy, so it's refreshing to be here and see people advocating for themselves." Anyway, he adds, "the strike has given me more time to see the country."

Caroline Beck sees no such silver lining. The Manchester-born political science graduate student at Tel Aviv University has been heckled on the picket line while trying to enter the campus to get to her job as a research assistant in the School of Government and Policy ("I only get paid if I swipe my card"), and there is a chance her graduation will be delayed by a year if she has to retake a course she was supposed to complete in June. She is also concerned about whether the Student Authority, which paid her tuition fees as part of her entitlement as a new immigrant, will fork out the fees for next year if that is necessary.

"It makes me so angry," 26-year-old Beck said this week before the strike deal was signed. "Everyone in the student body seems to be doing their first degree and I think that people studying for their second degree are at a completely different stage in life. I get text messages from them at a quarter to one in the morning. I agree that poorer students should get more help, but I don't think it's the brats in Ramat Aviv planning their political careers who should be holding people to ransom. Striking is not an effective mechanism for what they are trying to achieve."

Beck also blames herself for not getting more involved with student politics. "I didn't know they had so much power," she says. "I would like to have had more input."