Chicago Students See Israel First Hand, Skip BDS

May 7, 2012 11:57 am 0 comments

Tel Aviv University and University of Chicago workshop participants at a Jaffa overlook. The Chicago students visited Israel to study social issues. Photo: Ronen Shnidman.

Within weeks of March’s student-run conference advocating for a “one-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, a group of American public policy students arrived in Israel for a very different kind of workshop.

The four graduate students—none of them Jewish—from the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy participated in a three-day exchange program to meet with Israelis who have helped shape the country’s domestic policy. The workshop was organized as part of a seven-year-old partnership between Tel Aviv University’s Department of Public Policy and the Harris School.

Alternating from year to year, the respective universities host visiting students from their partner institution to learn more about each country’s government, public sector institutions and major social issues. Among the people students spoke with were former Interior Minister and past Labor Party MK Ophir Pines, summer tent protest leader Yuval Bdolach, and the deputy manager of the research division at the Bank of Israel Dr. Michel Strawczynki.

Two weeks earlier at Harvard, 20 radical left-wing speakers discussing the practical steps for implementing a one-state solution in Israel and the Palestinian territories—provoking a firestorm of controversy that led Kennedy School Dean David Ellwood to issue a statement denying that Harvard’s financial support for the conference was an endorsement of its political agenda.

Yet in Israel, the Harvard conference was barely noticed and the impact of the broader, ongoing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign to delegitimize Israel has been quite minimal, according to the chairman of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Public Policy, Prof. Eran Yashiv.

“As far as I know there has been no effect [from the boycott campaign],” Yashiv told JointMedia News Service. “Usually boycott efforts come up from the UK and Europe although the BDS campaign doesn’t seem to have progressed very much…We still receive delegations from Europe and elsewhere and I am not aware of any boycott efforts directed at Tel Aviv University.”

Nevertheless, the lion’s share of attention that national security concerns receive from Israeli policymakers was quickly impressed upon the visiting American students. During a discussion with former interior minister Ophir Pines regarding the impact of the summer tent protests, Pines dismissed the notion that the demonstrations significantly shifted government priorities.

“The protest affected Israeli politics but didn’t change it,” said Pines. “The political arena remains very stable… We were talking about Iran before [the protests], we’re talking about Iran now and we will be talking about Iran later.”

Tel Aviv University and University of Chicago workshop participants outside the Knesset in Israel. Photo: Ronen Shnidman.

One policy message presented to the Harris School delegation during their trip was that the status quo within Israel is untenable for reasons having little to do with Gaza and the West Bank, but more so the demographic transition of Israeli society.

Approximately half of today’s primary school-age children in Israel come from either the Israeli Arab or ultra-Orthodox haredi sectors of the population, comprising 28 and 20 percent of the primary school student population, respectively, according to findings presented to the students by Executive Director Prof. Dan Ben-David of the non-partisan Taub Center think tank.

Ben-David displayed international comparative academic performance test scores for Israeli Arab students that showed them performing at a level below the third-world average. Haredi students do not even study the core curriculum subjects these tests encompass and therefore do not take the exams, said Ben-David. The group discussion went on to cover the lack of participation in national service by the Arab and haredi sectors and the low employment rates of Arab women and haredi men. The message, said Ben-David, was that the declining Israeli welfare state could not continue supporting both of those societal sectors and afford to maintain a first-rate army for more than another decade.

Both center-left politicians, Independence MK Einat Wilf and Pines took particular umbrage at the majority of the haredi population’s receipt of government benefits, avoidance of national obligations and lack of productive employment.

“In Israel, one third of the population works, one third pays taxes and one third serves in the army, but it is the same one third,” said Wilf, recounting an old local joke for the visiting students. She advocated for letting the entire ultra-orthodox community “separate” themselves from mainstream Israeli society in return for giving up all claims to state benefits.

Arnon Mentover—the Israeli CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)—countered Wilf’s comments by pointing that over the 14 years during which JDC’s Tevet employment program has been in operation, the program has helped over 15,000 people, among them haredim and Israeli Arabs, find gainful employment.

Tevet assists members of marginalized communities within Israel integrate into the workforce. JDC believes that by gradually gaining the trust and cooperation of haredi rabbis and their communities, progress can be made on the issue of integrating haredim into Israeli society, Mentover said.

“I’m not a politician and I don’t want to directly address the comments of politicians seeking to stir up controversy on this issue,” Mentover said in a phone interview with JointMedia News Service. “However, the socioeconomic analysis of situation is that it is a difficult trend.”

The problem Mentover emphasized was not that some haredim chose to spend their adult lives learning Torah instead of serving in the army and working, but that there has been a disproportionate growth in the number of such life-long learners over the years.

“As a secular person, I think the idea of the talmid chacham should exist and be supported,” said Mentover. “The best and brightest of these students shouldn’t have to serve in the army, but they number in the few hundred or maybe a thousand. Talented people should be able to continue on their paths [without serving in the army].”

Overall, the Chicago students likely returned home with a better understanding of major social issues in Israel. Yet, while topics relating to the anti-Israel conference that took place at their fellow elite American university—Harvard—were certainly not the focus of their trip, those often ubiquitous topics were not entirely ignored. Even during a talk by Wilf focusing on the Israeli educational system, the Knesset member highlighted the importance she placed on efforts to combat the delegitimization of the Jewish state.

“Israel today is engaged in a [existential] battle that is much more intellectual than physical,” said Wilf. “What we are seeing is continuation of the war against Israel… Now the battle has shifted towards undermining the intellectual and moral rationale of the state.”

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