University Swarms With Israeli Literature Students, All 14 of Them

Days before semester begins, literature enrollment is at all-time low.

Only 14 students registered for the undergraduate degree program in the Hebrew literature department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for this academic year, which begins Sunday. It is the smallest number of new students in the history of the department, once one of the university's most prestigious and highly regarded internationally.

"We are in genuine crisis, and the university leadership needs to wake up. If this trend continues in the coming years, I fear for the future of the department as an autonomous unit," department chairman Ariel Hirschfeld said.

university - Alex Levac - October 8 2010
Alex Levac

The Institute for Jewish Studies, to which the department belongs, was established in 1924, predating the university itself, and was the foundation for what eventually became the Faculty of Humanities of Hebrew University.

In the 1950s the department was the second largest in the university. Among the important scholars of Hebrew literature who taught there over the years were Yosef Klausner, Shimon Halkin, Gershon Shaked, Dan Miron, Dan Pagis and Dov Noy.

Hirschfeld says that over the past decade there has been a steady drop in the number of new students who enroll in the department's B.A. program.

According to data provided by the university, 27 students registered for the program last year. There was also a drop in the number of M.A. students in Hebrew literature, from 23 who registered two years ago to only 10 this year.

"What is sad and very troubling is that this is not a new phenomenon, but a lingering death of the Hebrew literature department - and no one has managed to counter the problem," said a faculty member who asked to remain anonymous.

The Hebrew literature departments in other Israeli universities, however, have high new enrollment numbers.

Tel Aviv University's Hebrew literature department reported 38 new undergraduates, while Ben-Gurion University of the Negev cited 110 new Hebrew lit majors. The University of Haifa holds the record, with 150 new students.

Different people give different reasons for the dwindling numbers of Hebrew literature students at the Jerusalem university.

Some say the increasingly ultra-Orthodox image of the city is driving away non-observant students. Others point to the overall drop in the number of those studying humanities. (Fourteen years ago, 18.5 percent of all students studied humanities, compared to 8.1 percent two years ago. )

"The university itself made a big mistake when it changed, several years ago, the name of the department to the Department of Hebrew Literature, Yiddish, and Folklore," Hirschfeld says. "This title ravaged the rates of registration in our department," he maintains.

Another factor is the shrinking faculty base, mostly because of the failure to hire new teachers. "There are fewer teachers, fewer courses offered and fewer students," says a source familiar with the department. In contrast to the past, students no longer come especially to Hebrew University to study Hebrew literature."