Israel has no shortage of crises. And while most attention the last few months has focused on the Winograd Commission report, with its findings of failures in the government’s conduct of the 2006 war with Hezbollah; the Annapolis conference and the on-again, mostly off-again peace talks with the Palestinians; and the growing concern about Iran’s efforts to make good on its promise to destroy the Jewish state, one could make the case that Israel’s greatest worry is not over its military, diplomatic or political strength, but its serious loss of brainpower, which effects every aspect of society.
“The most important resource we have in our country is our brains,” noted Moshe Kaveh, an internationally acclaimed physicist who is president of Bar-Ilan, the largest of Israel’s seven universities, with more than 32,000 students.
During an interview here this week, accompanied by Mark Medin, the newly appointed, New York-based executive vice president of the American Friends of Bar-Ilan University, the soft-spoken professor warned that if what he called the academic “brain drain” taking place over the last few years in Israel continues, the results will be “a catastrophe” for a country reliant on developments in science, technology and other fields to bolster the economy and maintain a qualitative edge in the Mideast.
As chairman of the Council of Israeli University Presidents, Kaveh played a key role as point person between professors and the government during the country’s longest education-related strike that ended several weeks ago after more than three months, losing most of the semester. But he said the underlying problem remains because the issue “is not just about the budget, it’s about an attitude,” and that’s what disturbs him so much.
Kaveh is not convinced the government has the resolve to enact recommendations he believes are absolutely essential, though politically unpopular, despite a personal promise made to him last week by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
”He told me last Sunday that in ‘the short period’ the government will go forward” with the recommendations of the Schochat Committee, which Kaveh says “gives hope to the future of higher education in Israel.”
He interprets that to mean the government will act before Passover; if not, he and his fellow university presidents are prepared to make good on a threat to keep their schools closed next fall.
It was just such a threat, Kaveh said, that forced the creation last year of the Schochat Committee, an independent, blue-ribbon panel of academics and economists dealing with reforms in higher education.
The context for the crisis, according to Kaveh and his fellow university presidents, was that with tuitions so low — only $1,800 a year — Israeli universities have relied heavily on the government, which provides about two-thirds of their funding. But over the last seven years, that funding has been reduced by 25 percent. One of the many negative results has been that the universities had to cut some 800 teaching positions during that time.
According to Kaveh, some 4,500 Israeli professors — almost half of the country’s total — now teach overseas, most of them in America, where they not only find posts but make about four or five times as much in salary as they would in Israel.
He well understands the pull of economic security, recalling that almost 30 years ago, he was offered a job by Exxon in the U.S. that would have paid five times the salary he now makes as president of Bar-Ilan. He turned it down, he said, realizing it would become increasingly difficult to return to Israel.
”You need to be a true Zionist” to resist such “temptations,” Kaveh said, asserting that he is hoping to bring back “the ones who really want to come back” and who are willing to forego higher salaries because they believe in Israel’s mission.
To reverse the disturbing trend in higher education, the Schochat Committee is calling for giving back the government budget cuts to universities; providing professors with a 25 percent increase in salary; adding 100 Israeli academic posts a year; and releasing students (who usually start college after completing three years of army service) from paying tuition until after they have completed their studies, giving them 10 to 15 years to pay back their loans.
It’s a “brilliant” proposal, said Kaveh, who noted that he called for such a plan five years ago. But he acknowledged that it would require a 100 percent increase in tuition, to about $3,600 a year. And while he called such a move reasonable and fair, he said that not only will students protest a tuition hike but politicians will be loathe to endorse such an increase shortly before elections.
Still, he insisted, “the government needs to go forward with this plan even if students disagree,” adding that he and his university colleagues are “pushing for this hard line” because it is the only way to reverse a situation that is a real danger to Israel’s future success as a society.
He is also calling for long-range planning in education as an urgent priority in a country that has one of the lowest ratios of government spending on higher education and where only one-third of youth pursue a university degree.
In addition, Kaveh bemoaned the level of Jewish ignorance among Israeli youth and pointed out the critical gap filled by Bar-Ilan, the only Israeli university that requires students to take courses in Jewish-related studies, in a society increasingly split between religious and secular Jews. Sixty-five percent of Bar-Ilan students are secular, but Kaveh asserted that advancing Judaism and democracy would continue to be a primary goal of the school.
His outlook and accomplishments are admirable, and judging from his resume in physics, his expertise in “disordered systems” and “theories of chaos in matter” may prove an advantage in trying to get Israel’s educational system back on track.
One early sign will be whether Olmert makes good on his promise of government approval of the Schochat Committee recommendations in the next two months.