Budget cuts and an exodus of academics are wreaking havoc at once-great universities, reports Nathan Jeffay
Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Martin Buber stood together, unable to contain their excitement. It was January 1925, and they had just opened the first Jewish national university. They were celebrating because the "people of the book" now had a home for its scholarship.
These three greats were among the first governors at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, but they left it to their less well-known fellow governor, the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, to capture the sense of occasion.
"There is an ancient tradition that in the time of messianic redemption, synagogues and houses of study will be transported, along with their foundations, to Palestine," he announced. A modern version of this prophecy was being fulfilled.
Zionists were working to establish a national home for Jewry in British-run Palestine, which they achieved in 1948. But this national home was not just to be a political entity; it was also to be an intellectual home.
"This connection was so important and was the factor that made Israel a world leader in research in its early days," said Ilan Gur-Ze'ev, professor of education at Haifa University.
It worked - according to the number of citations in leading scientific journals, Israel ranks fourth in international tables of scientific publications per capita (the UK is number six).
A survey based on the number of citations in leading scientific journals also ranks Israeli research as fourth best in the world. But Israeli academia is living on borrowed time, said Professor Gur-Ze'ev. The rankings reflect the achievements of researchers trained in a bygone era who owe their success to investment that no longer exists and who try to operate in a system being dismantled around them.
In short, he argued that they succeeded despite, not because of, the current infrastructure. And he predicted that standards would slip substantially in the next couple of decades.
While once academia and state-building went hand in hand, the governing authorities in the Jewish state are increasingly viewed as the enemies of the academies.
The state has cut budgets for research and ongoing operations by more than £150 million in the past decade, leaving the country's annual higher education budget at £650 million, roughly equivalent to the running costs of one large US university. It ushered in reforms dubbed "commercialisations", which critics such as Professor Gur-Ze'ev said distort the legacy of "the people of the book" into that of "the people of the book-keeper".
The resulting situation is somewhat ironic. Each of the country's seven universities was founded as an intellectual powerhouse where Jewish immigrants from around the world would create a meeting of minds. Zionism's aim, the "in-gathering of the exiles" - which was taken straight from the Bible - was meant to reach its pinnacle there.
But today there is an exodus from Israeli academia to universities in the UK, the US and even Eastern Europe.
Research suggests that the brain drain is gathering pace quickly, with the percentage of academics leaving Israel almost doubling every two years. In 2002, 0.9 per cent of academics left; by 2004 it was 1.7 per cent.
The current battle lines between the parliament and academe were drawn in 2000 when, after three years of deliberation, a government committee waged war on traditional elements of university life, including elected deans and an autonomous senate.
These features of the university contribute to "the creation of inertia without a real attempt at reform," the committee said.
Academics were to work on temporary contracts, as tenure was intensifying this inertia. Universities were to be run by presidents and an executive council of low-level politicians, not through election by faculty members, and academics were to become their employees.
The backlash from academics was swift. Led by Professor Gur-Ze'ev, they founded the Inter-Senate Committee of the Universities for the Protection of Academic Independence. It concluded that the government committee "ignored the decisive contribution of the universities to the national economy and security. It ignored the fact that through higher education we have turned from an agricultural to an industrial state with high technology and increased tenfold the GNP".
Seven years later, the reforms are still being implemented and opponents are still trying to block them. Since the process began, student numbers have increased, by between 30 and 50 per cent. But just as the reforms were beginning to bite, so was the second intifada, which started in September 2000. This intensified spending on defence, which has long been blamed for diverting funds from academia.
Part of the Government's response has been to charge students more for their university tuition, a move that sparked a wave of strikes over recent weeks. Academics, already frustrated and angered at the Government's higher education policy, have been quick to support them.
Morale in faculties is poor, and incentives to stay in teaching and research are low.
Maurice Cohen has been a theoretical chemist at Hebrew University for more than 40 years. The atmosphere was hopeful when he started out. Now, he says: "It is extremely difficult for a young untenured lecturer to get a proper start and achieve significant research fame."
During Stefan Reif's 40-year career in UK universities, he held several visiting positions in Israel. He resolved to spend more time in Israel after retiring from the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University. But the Israel he is rediscovering is not the same country he left in the late 1990s. "Few students these days are thinking of academic careers because of the lack of funds, posts and, perhaps above all, social respect," he said.
Leading minds are being lured into industry, not academia, reports Asher Yahalom, professor of electrical and electrical engineering at the College of Judea and Samaria.
"Despite the fact that I have 20 years' experience in my field, my students who have just graduated go to work in a high-tech company and earn the same as me," he said.
"It has not always been this way. A few decades ago, working in academia was well paid, and people in other sectors were keen to get on this level."
Yet he counts himself among the lucky ones. His subject feeds high-tech, the country's growth industry, and does relatively well for funding.
Philosopher of science Menachem Fisch knows this only too well. His father, Harold Fisch, also a scholar, emigrated from the UK in the 1950s. While his father saw faculties expand, Professor Fisch has watched staff levels at Tel Aviv University shrink by 20 per cent in the past five years.
"We just don't get the type of grant money that sciences and engineering do," he said. "Nobody is being sacked, but people who are retiring - or taking incentives for early retirement - are not being replaced. In fact, with a lack of new faculty members coming in, a generation gap is emerging.
"In terms of teaching power and research power, we have shrunk significantly, and with growth in student numbers it is nearly impossible."
Growing numbers of Israelis look ready to conclude that they live in a war zone and face major problems of poverty. Defence and social ills are the priorities, academia a luxury.
But having enthused about the connection between state-building and academia in the early days, Professor Gur-Ze'ev said this missed the point - there was the same interdependence today.
"In Israel, more than anywhere else in the world, the fate of universities and higher education is a strategic problem, a threat for the very existence of our society.
"Given the absence of natural resources and the problematic region in which the state of Israel is located, academic excellence and scientific advancement are of vital importance for the very existence of the country, not solely for techno-cultural prosperity," he said.
* Israel's population: 7 million
* Number of universities: Seven
* Number of academics:
* Full professors:
* Associate professors:
* Senior lecturers:
* Salary: From 8,000 shekels (£1,018) per month.
CAREER OR COUNTRY?
When Ithai Rabinowitch, 35, comes to the end of the three years of postdoctoral studies he has just begun at Cambridge University, he may have to choose between career and country.
The neuroscientist is deeply patriotic. He spent five years in the army instead of the compulsory three so he could serve as an officer, and he hopes to advance Israeli research by returning home and starting his own lab. However, he said: "I am all too aware of how difficult it is to find posts in Israel, and the fact I may not get one."
He said the decision could be the result of ten years' research versus his family and nation, and that if pushed he might give up on a promising academic career.
"I think now that being in Israel is more important to me than being in academia, and I would take a non-academic job in Israel, but how can I say? I do not want to have to choose."