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Protests Force Closure of Colleges Across Israel as Strikers 'Hunger to Learn'

Students and teachers question country's fundamental values, government spending.

November 20, 1998|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Instead of writing the final chapters of his upcoming book on a 13th century Christian mystic, Haim Hames has been camped out for days on the sidewalk in front of the Israeli prime minister's home.

Hames and about 50 students and teachers are waging a hunger strike, part of a nationwide school boycott protesting what demonstrators say is government neglect of education.

A history lecturer, Hames said he was starting to feel a little weak, his brain a little fuzzy, from a week without food. Yet he and the others remained determined, snuggled in a campsite of thin mattresses and sleeping bags under a blue-canvas canopy decorated with hand-drawn posters: "We hunger to learn."

Strikes in Israel's education system are common. But never have so many students been able to shut down universities and colleges across the country for so long. The entire fall semester has been on hold in most cities.

It started with a plea for a 50% reduction in the cost of tuition and has snowballed into a wider questioning of some of Israel's fundamental values, not to mention government spending.

"This is about priorities," said Nir Alfasa, a 25-year-old law student from Haifa University and a hunger-striker.

Israel has always prided itself in making schools democratically available to its citizens, and it claims that its population is one of the best-educated in the world. It ranks high in per-capita spending on students.

However, these days many Israeli youths pursuing higher education say they cannot afford it, and public money that might be used to finance schooling is instead going to defense, ultra-Orthodox organizations, Jewish settlements and other causes of political importance to the government.

Compared with university tuition in the United States, costs here are low--about $2,500 a year. But scholarships and financial aid are insufficient to cover costs. Students say they have to work many hours to be able to pay for housing, books and food. The strike organizers maintain that a student must work on average 220 hours a month, at a special lower minimum wage for students, to earn the roughly $800 a month that can cover basic--very basic--living expenses.

"Students are forced to spend less time in the classroom, less time studying. They have no time to be inquisitive," said Hames, the history lecturer. "The level of education is declining, and that brings down the level of professionals, people in industry, and the whole society."

In contrast to their financial struggle, the striking students note with considerable resentment that ultra-Orthodox youth attend a separate school system that is heavily subsidized by the government. Ultra-Orthodox students are also exempt from military duty, unlike other Israeli youths.

Thousands of students have carried their protest to yeshivas, or Jewish religious schools, and have rallied in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The protesters have also opened a Web site: http://www.maavak.co.il.

Police broke up several of the demonstrations, using a level of force that shocked many parents, who saw "our kids" getting beaten up. Scores of students have been arrested but quickly released.

For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the student protests are another headache coming during a few bad weeks. His right-wing political coalition is in turmoil over a peace deal he signed with the Palestinians. His constituency of Jewish settlers and religious conservatives is furious that he has agreed to give away West Bank land.

Netanyahu finally waded into the strike a month after it began.

He and Finance Minister Yaacov Neeman met with student leaders and offered to increase the number of scholarships and ease payback conditions on loans. Privately, the government does not consider the students' demands justified but understands the sympathy that the students generate in the public view.

Most of the hunger-strikers have been camped outside Netanyahu's home for at least 10 days. They say they are taking only liquids, and at last count 19 had required hospitalization.

Opposition politicians stop by to show support. Passing motorists honk their horns. Netanyahu's wife, Sara, also took it upon herself to show kindness to the strikers.

She stepped outside for a chat and invited them for pizza.

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