The Honor of the Elites Must Be Reestablished

A strike of an unusual sort is about to happen: The universities may stay closed because they have not received NIS 300 million that they are supposed to get according to the Shochat Committee's recommendations.

This is not about salaries; it is about keeping the universities afloat. In recent years, the higher education budget has been cut by billions of shekels, and the remaining money is divided between the universities and an ever growing number of colleges. No wonder that Israel's universities are looking very mediocre in international rankings.

Nevertheless, Ehud Olmert's government is not willing to risk any conflict when it comes to channeling funds to the universities. It is not politically sexy.

There are deep reasons for this. Over the last 15 years, the word "elites" has become a pejorative. In the 1990s, Benjamin Netanyahu picked up on the antielitist fashion and turned it into a central part of his rhetoric, which definitely worked well with his constituency. Netanyahu (who holds degrees from MIT and Harvard) has since openly regretted his move, because something went terribly wrong: The Golem of antielitist rhetoric took on a life of its own. The term "elite" has been made to sound as if it denoted a closed club of rich people, presumably Ashkenazim from some closely-knit group in prestigious neighborhoods like Rehavia or north Tel Aviv, who anxiously preserve their privileges. Anything that reeks of high culture is suspected of being guilty of special interests, presumably those of the left.

But who are these much-maligned academic elites, really? They are talented, hard-working and dedicated academics and professionals who come from all over the country. They educate our future doctors, engineers, managers, teachers, historians, judges and, hopefully, politicians. Some of their students will continue to work for low salaries to become researchers and professors themselves. A few of those will produce research that will contribute to Israel's economy and its international standing.

The current disdain for intellectual elites is in striking contrast to one of the central values of 2,000 years of Jewish history. Since Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai asked for nothing but Yavneh and its scholars, Jews have made it a point to foster intellectual elites. Communities sought out the illui, the most gifted scholar in the community, and provided for his livelihood. The great names that every Jewish child knew were those of Saadia Gaon, Maimonides, Joseph Karo and Chaim of Brisk.

This tradition found new expression after the Jewish emancipation in Europe. In an inconceivably short period of time, Jews climbed to the pinnacle of academic achievement, including disproportional representation in the ranks of Nobel Prize winners. The Jewish people produced the two intellectuals who changed the landscape of the 20th century, Einstein and Freud.

Here in Israel, things started well: The Hebrew University was founded more than two decades before the state was founded. Its intellectual giants, from Gershom Scholem through Jacob Talmon and Yeshayahu Leibowitz, were held in high esteem by society.

How far have we moved from those days! Politicians are anxious to sound populist and simple (even though some of them tried to buy academic degrees, thus showing their disdain for true academic achievement). Intellectual and cultural sophistication is associated with snobbery and distance from the people. The slightest indication that universities need to educate elites immediately evokes apologetic disclaimers. Intellectual excellence can only be justified by its direct impact on the economy, as if academic studies are nothing but entry tickets into lucrative professions. We have thus lost touch with the pride of a Jewish legacy of millennia. Shouldn't it worry us that of the more than 150 Nobel Prizes Jews have been awarded, only eight went to Israel?

Let me make it clear: Broad accessibility of higher education (for the entire population, Jewish and non-Jewish) is crucially important, and we are doing well in this respect. More than 35 percent of the relevant age group in Israel is engaged in academic studies. But broad accessibility must not come at the price of striving for excellence, and the growth of public colleges (a blessed development) must not continue to deprive the research universities that should educate Israel's elites.

Of course the competition for places at elite universities is cruel. But for some reason, we accept this when it comes to the national soccer team or to "A Star is Born;" yet we become apologetic when it comes to academia. The price is mediocrity, something Israel simply cannot afford. Without decent funding of the university system, we will continue to lose our best and brightest to foreign universities, because they cannot get appointments here. Intellectual achievement should, once again, become a source of pride rather than a shameful deviation from the cultural wasteland that we have come to take for granted in our public discourse.

The author is a professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University.