Presidential eye on the dorm

March 10, 1995

The Nelson Mandela building is a popular name for British student unions, or perhaps even the Yasser Arafat building, but at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, the student union is housed in the Frank Sinatra building. Perhaps this gives some indication of how politicised Israel's largest university student union is.

The buildings of cream-coloured Jerusalem stone which are spread over Mount Scopus - one of the seven hills on which Jerusalem, like Rome, lies - constitute only part of the Hebrew University, housing the 15,000 students in the humanities and social sciences faculties. The remaining 7,500 students are divided evenly between the three other sites: the science faculties at Givat Ram on the other side of Jerusalem; the medical school in the village of Ein Karem on the outskirts of city; and the agriculture school in Rehovot near Tel Aviv.

Asaf Botach, president of the student union covering all four sites, sits in an office that would be the envy of many a student president in Britain: a long wooden table dominates the room, and windows along one side present a stunning view of Jerusalem below.

The blue-and-white Israeli flag stands in the corner behind Mr Botach's desk. There are beautiful framed pieces of Egyptian papyrus on the wall behind him.

Although he claims that his political opinions are of no importance when carrying out his role as president, politics will have already played its part by the time he takes up his post. Each year, union officers are elected to their positions, after a fashion.

"I will advertise the positions all over the campus, and then they come here and give us reasons why we should vote for them," says Mr Botach. "Representatives from all the political groups on campus will sit here and we will vote together." This is a total of seven people: Mr Botach, the representatives from the other sites and one person from each of the main political groups on campus.

The dominant party tends to be that which opposes the party of government. Here at the Hebrew University, the largest political group is Gilad Aviv, "an essentially right group, which I belong to", Mr Botach says.

The second largest group is Ofek, whose policies are similar to the Labour party. They are followed by the student wing of Meretz, another left-wing political party, and the Arab committee, representing Arab students on campus.

Students do not participate directly in the election of their union, but they do vote, within their faculties, for faculty representatives.

Mr Botach, his vice-president and 12 officers are not taking this year as a break from their studies to devote time to their union, although they do get paid. All are in the middle of degree courses. Mr Botach is studying for a masters in urban planning and political science, which does not take up too much time, he claims.

The union officers, nine of whom are women, have portfolios ranging from academic issues to social activities, organising debates, looking after the numerous new immigrants and their particular problems, religious and cultural issues, and running the union club, the Barathon. This venue hosts different activities each day, from a Sixties night to karate classes and ceramics workshops.

The union is financed by a variety of sources. The university provides approximately two-thirds of the annual budget. Some of this money is in the form of scholarships for approximately 100 students as part of a program called "Bayit Petuach" or Open House, under which the students do community work, such as reading to the blind or visiting the elderly, in exchange for funding.

Part of the remaining third is derived from membership fees, which are 50 shekels (about Pounds 10) a year. At present there are 10,000 students who have chosen to join the union (membership is voluntary) and for their 50 shekels they receive "a very nice present - a bag with a calendar, a notebook and a pen, and some free photocopy cards. We give them a lot."

Internationally, the Hebrew University union is not particularly active, preferring to leave that to those working at national union level.

As for contact with Palestinian universities: "With Palestinians? No. But I am in very good contact with the Arab Student Board here," Mr Botach says.

There are about 1,000 Arab students at the Hebrew University. Problems particular to them include living arrangements, which are complicated due to students of the opposite sex being unable to live together in the Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem.

Therefore, Mr Botach attempts to find accommodation for those who want it on campus. But there is a problem: "There aren't enough dormitories. People should get rooms but there are problems when people register late, and we try to sort it out."

To Mr Botach, the student union plays a vital role in representing the students to the university, which is made up of "professors who are very old people - mentally and physically. The management is sitting on the fifth floor somewhere, far away from our feelings and people's concerns and problems".

He says his job has nothing to do with politics. He refuses to broach the subject, brushing it off with: "I'm not allowed to do anything political. It's in the constitution."

He will not discuss the peace process and how he feels this may affect students, and he wholly approves of this divorce of politics from student concerns, citing the case of a former president who broadcast his left-wing opinions throughout his term of office. Mr Botach feels that this is not in students' interests. He is keeping his mind firmly on dormitories.

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