Israel Update – Week of January 1, 2024
University: I recently received a tongue-in-cheek meme: “I knew that Hamas was hiding in universities. I just didn’t know they were hiding in Harvard, MIT, and Penn.” This meme was referring to a December 5, 2023 Congressional Hearing in which Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R-NY) asked a pointed question to the Presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania: Were calls for the genocide of Jews against school policy? The answers were striking. While Congresswoman Stefanik gave the presidents a hint (“The answer is: Yes”), none of them gave an unequivocal answer. The backlash was immediate and comprehensive. Less than one week after the hearing, University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill had resigned her post, and earlier this week, Harvard President Claudine Gay resigned as well. Gay was battling not only accusations of antisemitism but plagiarism as well. While MIT President Sally Kornbluth has remained in her position, she now finds herself under the spotlight, and her tenure is in jeopardy.
Israeli universities, while some might call them “highly progressive,” do not suffer from antisemitism. Israel is, after all, a Jewish country and an overwhelming majority of students and staff are Jewish. Nevertheless, Israeli universities now find themselves under the spotlight, as well.
After the atrocities of October 7, 2023 and the ensuing war (still called “Operation Swords of Iron”), nearly all Israeli reservists were called to emergency reserve duty. While the numbers remain classified, hundreds of thousands of men and women left their homes to an open-ended, potentially life-threatening, stint of military service. While some of the reservists went south to Gaza to take part in the fight against Hamas, more than half of them – including my two sons and my son-in-law, went to the north of the country to defend the border and nearby towns from the Hezbollah, an Iranian Shiite proxy that has been menacing Israel for the past twenty years.
A few weeks after the initial call-up, the IDF began to understand that they were guilty of overshooting their target. The IDF needed warfighters – the people who drive the tanks, fire the artillery, fly the F-35s and run up and down the sand dunes with their machine guns blazing. They had less of a need for people that were not serving on the front line, people like my nephew, who serves his reserve duty at the IDF Rabbinate and whose job is to identify bodies. (Thankfully, the number of dead in this war is significantly less than originally thought). Further, the impact of the mass call-up to the Israeli economy was immense, and so the IDF gradually began to release large numbers of the reservists.
Here is where universities enter the picture. In order to avoid the Jewish High Holiday season, Israeli universities typically begin their academic year one or two weeks after the last of the high holidays, the holiday of Simchat Torah, the day on which Hamas massacred 1200 Israelis and took 240 of them hostage. The new academic year was scheduled to begin on October 15. Realizing that most of their students and much of their faculty members and academic and administrative staff had been called to reserve duty, the universities chose to delay the beginning of the academic year.
At the same time, the universities,  understanding that their enlisted students needed financial assistance and  benefiting from wealthy overseas donors who wanted to do something – anything – for the soldiers, began to dole out grants. For example, Ben Gurion University of the Negev announced that enrolled students called up for reserve duty would receive a 1,200 Shekels (US$300) grant and a delay in paying rental fees if they were living in university dormitories. Bar-Ilan University also announced grants of 1,000 – 5000 Shekels (US$255 – 1,300) for more than 6,000 registered students who were serving on the front lines. The grant was to be “applied towards housing and tuition, emotional support, and additional study hours during the academic year.”
Operation Swords of Iron has been raging for nearly three months, during which the universities have postponed the beginning of the academic year no less than four times. At the same time, the army has been releasing more and more soldiers as the war in Gaza enters a new phase in which less soldiers are required. The soldiers that have been released are, on the average, older than those still serving, and, as a result, include a higher percentage of university faculty members and academic and administrative staff than students.
In early December, it was decided by all of the universities that given the relatively large number of reservists that had been released and given the impact of delaying the beginning of the academic year for a fifth time, the academic year would begin on December 31, 2023. The IDF reportedly contacted the heads of the universities and requested that the beginning of the academic year be further delayed, but their request was rebuffed, warning that another postponement could put the entire school year at risk and hinder the ability to reach the quotas of doctors, engineers, and social workers set by the state. The question was what to do with the reservists who were not released.
The heads of the universities have reiterated their commitment to do everything possible to ensure that no student is left behind. Each university was given the flexibility to tailor a program for its students. For instance, the Technion, my alma mater, is enabling students who served extensively in the army reserves during the current war to receive exemptions from regular and make-up final exams for classes they took in the spring and summer semesters of 2023.
Bar-Ilan University approved a special plan that will address both the needs of Israel and its economy, and those of students serving in the reserve forces. As part of the plan, every student serving in the reserves will receive the university’s “Academic Armor,” which includes academic and administrative benefits, emotional support, and an advisor from the university. According to the program, the academic year at Bar-Ilan will begin in two phases: The first phase begins on December 31 and the second phase will begin upon the release of reserve soldiers. In the second phase, only released reserves soldiers will arrive on campus for an “academic prep” week between January 26 and February 1. During this week, the university, and especially its academic staff, will focus their efforts on bringing these students up to speed. What happens if the reservists are not released by January 26 is not discussed.
In all likelihood, they will lose the entire semester. “We have reached a point where there are two bad choices… to lose a year of study and the other, something that temporarily harms the reservists,” Professor Arie Zaban, Bar-Ilan University president and head of the Association of University Heads, said at a Knesset Education Committee meeting. The commander of the reserve forces, Brig.-Gen. Benny Ben Ari, told the Knesset Education Committee that most of the reservists in combat are students. “The students who serve expect us to make the adjustments so that they are not harmed because they left everything to protect the country,” said Ben Ari.
How fair are the universities being to the reservists? In order to answer this question, we need to know the numbers:
How many students are being affected by the decision to go ahead and begin the academic year?
The Council for Higher Education in Israel says that approximately 55,000 students are on reserve duty, making up about 18% of the total student body of 332,000. The Student Union, however, estimated this figure to be higher: around 70,000. In other words, between 17-21 percent of all Israeli university students are in jeopardy of losing a semester and perhaps more because they are risking their lives serving their country. And so they are scrambling.
My son began his university career at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem – one of Israel’s most prestigious universities – on December 31. He is taking a double major – Business Administration and Psychology. He went to classes for exactly two days, and then he went back to a Forward Operating Base on the Lebanese border, where he has been serving as a Platoon Commander for the past 90 days with no end in sight. Since then, he has been spending two hours a day trying to keep up with his classmates, reading and attending classes via Zoom, and all the time keeping him and his soldiers out of the way of Hezbollah rockets and antitank missiles. Hopefully he will return next Wednesday for a week, and then it’s back to the border. Here’s the thing: I don’t want him spending time studying psychology and business administration right now.
As a parent and as an Israeli, I want him to direct his entire attention to staying safe and protecting our country.
Before October 7, Israel was a country on the brink of Civil War. It was a country made up of interest groups at loggerheads that each weaponized the media to further their own goals. October 7 galvanized the country. Nowhere is this galvanization more prevalent than in the army. In Gaza and on the Lebanese border, it is truly “all for one and one for all.” There is a well-defined enemy, and it is not us. Indeed, reservists regularly put out YouTube clips (The linked clips are in Hebrew but it is enough to know that “Tistemu et ha’peh” means “Shut your mouth”) in which they beg the politicians and political pundits to [sic] “keep their mouths shut” if they have nothing to say that is not divisive. In Israel, since October 7, everything is infused with existential criticality, even something as banal as choosing when to open the universities. My hearty recommendation to all parties – the universities, the reservists, and most of all, the politicians – is to tread very carefully.