The Picket Line
The college students of Israel have not heard a lecture in more than a month. They’re on strike, ostensibly to prevent a semi-modest increase in tuition rates that is required to pull Israel’s public universities out of the red. Most of the students here must support themselves while earning their degree, and certainly, even minor fiscal pressure will force many of them to take out loans or delay their undergrad matriculation. Unfortunately, like all political action, the motivation is completely misconstrued. Tuition hikes, especially in a country where higher education carries a particularly affordable price tag, are a looming reality. A nationwide strike against fiscal responsibility is akin to mass tax rebellion; worse, it is much less effective.
The true impetus for the strike, according to the top brass at the national Student Union, is the privatization of public education in a nation that still clings to the ideal of civic socialism. The blind capitalist locomotive has chugged steadily forward here in the last years, privatizing whole sectors such as media and public transportation, to the chagrin of just about everyone who isn’t raking in the huge profit margins. Israel’s rich are getting exponentially richer, the poor slowly slipping into poverty, and the middle class is dwindling along with the nation’s once ironclad production and farm industries. High-tech is the new Israeli Grail.
Of course, the Union leaders are right. Putting the universities in the hands of (gasp!) profit-seeking corporations will probably lead to heavy cuts in the liberal arts, a reduction of student services under the guise of efficiency gains, and a decrease in the quality of education, as deans seek to hire whichever lecturers are willing to teach for cheapest. Meanwhile, the wrinkliest brains in the professor pool will get fed up with layoffs and corporate politics and move to the more expensive private (as opposed to corporate) colleges. Nobody benefits except the shareholders. This is a great reason to strike. Too bad not one student out of fifty has any clue that this is why they are striking. They are cutting class because of tuition hikes. They are burning tires because of tuition hikes. They are blocking roads because of tuition hikes, and no one in the leadership tells them any different because it is much harder to explain the miasma of neoliberal politics than the economics of your wallet.
To make things worse, the Student Union has the tactical canny of a crowd of drunken soccer fans. Even without describing the shenanigans of the mob at the University of Tel Aviv or the catty infighting among the students themselves, it is clear that the current tactic of simply not showing up is not the most effective. If, with a little foresight and ambition, the organizers of the strike could have convinced a majority of students to withhold a tuition payment, they would have had the chips stacked in their favor from day one. Instead, they chose the questionable strategy of bullying all of the students into staying home. The idea is to force the government to cancel the semester and refund students’ tuition, unless negotiations lead to an agreement; in which case the students go back to class and administrators must find a way to salvage the winter term. In reality, if the Union can hold the ranks for long enough to force a cancellation, the money won’t be refunded; it will be credited towards the fall semester. The most likely outcome is that internal politics will cause the premature collapse of the strike, the semester will be extended into the summer months and professors will bear the burden of missing or rescheduling summer conferences and field research. In the meantime, the students are not being educated, and neither is the Israeli public.