Strikers seek community service

December 4, 1998

Israeli students demanding that the government halve tuition fees are claiming support from government ministers, academics, doctors and the public.

The students have been on strike for five weeks and have organised rallies, a hunger strike and a camp outside the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem.

They want fees to be cut from 10,000 shekels (Pounds 1,500) to 5,000 shekels a year in return for two hours a week of community service, a demand that has been rejected so far by the Treasury.

Nehemia Levtzion, Council for Higher Education budget chairman, sympathises with the fact that students not only pay 10,000 shekels a year for tuition fees, but 30,000-40,000 shekels a year in living expenses, and has proposed loans of up to 30,000 shekels and more student accommodation.

"We are willing to arrange a system of loans that students will pay off up to one year after college. The universities will come to an agreement with the banks," he said. But students claimed the offer they had received included loans of up to 10,000 shekels only.

Boaz Kadosh, student leader at the Technion Israel-Institute of Technology in Haifa, said: "We didn't want to strike and starve to death, but the government is pushing us to the wall. According to polls, 91 per cent of the population supports the strike. All of the ministers support it."

Ronen Hirshkowitz, spokesman of the National Union of Israeli Students, said: "It's as if students are waking from a deep sleep."

Union chairman Lior Rothbart said: "Almost all of the ministers support the students and are saving the lost honour of the government. Instead of attacking ministers who identify with the students, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be wiser to climb down from finance minister Jacob Ne'eman's ladder and act with a measure of justice."

According to experts, the student strike, now in its fifth week, is not ideologically motivated. Hebrew University political scientist Ze'ev Sternhall pointed out in the daily Jerusalem Post:"The Israeli student is very far away from what we know in Europe or other parts of the world. He will not protest against torture, he will not march in the name of human rights. He is not interested in issues that do not touch his pocket."

The echoes of student radicalism and violence of America and France of the 1960s have no resonance in Israel.

However, Professor Levtzion says: "The students' participation in the strike was not for nothing. They forced us to change our order of priorities. They will never be the same. They (the students) want a gift of 50 per cent off the tuition. They want to make a social revolution."

Israeli president Ezer Weizmann, who has been trying to convince the sides to come together in a bid to end the strike, was quoted by his spokeswoman as saying that "he believes that both sides have to find a compromise. He believes that the younger generation has a lot to contribute but they also have to understand the Treasury".

"The government is negotiating with us as it negotiates with the Palestinians," according to striking students, many of whom are camping out opposite the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem.

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