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A fading horizon

Policy changes on humanities education, university employment and EU R&D cooperation will be catastrophic for Israel

Something unreal, bordering on the delusional, is happening in Israel’s educational system—and especially at its upper echelons. Several measures are currently being instituted which together threaten to rock the foundations not only of Israel’s advanced research and development capacities, but also of its industry, its economy and its societal norms. These seemingly unrelated steps—involving changes in policies regarding the humanities, the terms of employment at institutions of higher education and cooperation agreements with the European Union—if not halted immediately, together spell nothing short of a disaster for all that allows Israel to grow and prosper.

The first signs of distress emerged with the apparently innocuous announcement that the Ministry of Education was planning to cancel the compulsory matriculation examinations in history and literature—the mainstays of basic education in the humanities. This move, ostensibly intended to reduce the pressure of examinations on students by mandating only three central topics—math, Hebrew and English—has been rationalized as a means of encouraging in-depth learning in these areas. In reality, however, experts concur that the removal of these subjects from the matriculation matrix will ultimately result in their marginalization in the curriculum and, ultimately, in the minds of future generations.

The humanities are already downplayed in Israeli schools: most Israeli high school graduates are barely familiar with the basic texts of Hebrew literature, let alone with the elementary universal literary corpus.  Many reach the university without any knowledge of the American and French revolutions, not to speak of key events in Jewish history. If they are not exposed to these topics on a regular basis, they will know nothing at all.

It is not, however, the ensuing ignorance that is the only problem; much more significant is the message that acceptance of this situation conveys. Israel’s leading historians, writers, poets and playwrights have warned against this move, reminding all concerned that consciously relinquishing the world of the humanities is akin to forfeiting not only an understanding of the cultural and historical heritage on which a society is based, but also its ethical underpinnings, originality and innovative capacity. For these reasons all enlightened countries continue to subsidize the humanities—even at great cost—because these have proven to be the best investment in their cohesion and well-being.

The proposed change in the order of priorities at the secondary school level has spilled over to higher education as well. Two weeks ago the Hebrew University announced that it is canceling more than 100 courses in the Faculty of Humanities and relieving close to 90 adjunct lecturers in literature, philosophy, history, linguistics and related subjects of their duties.

The humanities in Israel, along with some of the social sciences, have been in crisis for quite some time. In an educational climate that increasingly gives preference to high-demand fields with visible returns (such as computer sciences and business administration), anthropology, semiotics and Egyptology do not rate high. Most of the academic colleges—the main competition facing universities today—have essentially become glorified professional institutions that mostly shun these subjects. Even though universities have pooled their advanced degree efforts in leading disciplines such as economics and philosophy (no mean feat in the extremely competitive environment of academe), there are some fields that are now on the verge of extinction. The libraries in Israel no longer hold key journals; access to knowledge is severely impaired. And now that the number of secondary school students slated to study the building blocks leading to higher education in key disciplines is about to be curtailed their future prospects are very dim indeed.

The need for an overall revamping of the structure of advanced instruction in the humanities and the social sciences requires a guiding hand. But the key authorities charged with this task, the Council of Higher Education (CHE) and its budgetary arm, the Committee for Planning and Budget, have treated the situation at the Hebrew University as a local matter and not as the latest symptom of an impending calamity. At this pace, medieval history, hermeneutics and Greek philosophy will disappear from the landscape; with them will also dissipate many of the intellectual props of Israeli society.

The authorities charged with overseeing higher education in Israel have not, however, been idle. They have recently revived the notion of granting personal contracts—replete with superannuated salaries—to a small group of superstars who are slated to illuminate the academic firmament. The reaction of the already beleaguered lecturers and professors has been clear-cut: they have announced a formal dispute which might postpone the opening of the academic year. In an atmosphere which consistently denigrates the importance of intellectual achievement, the over-compensation of a select group of so-called luminaries at the expense of extraordinarily well-qualified and internationally-vetted scholars is, indeed, a slap in the face. It is also a very weak incentive to attract top scientists and researchers—whose main concern revolves not around their personal income, but their access to the international scientific community and their ability to tap into its resources.

Here comes the most recent—and potentially most lethal—blow of all: the possible termination of research and development cooperation with the European Union. By far the most lucrative and productive aspect of the Israeli association agreement with Europe has been its inclusion in its research frameworks (the only non-European country to be accorded this benefit). In the last agreement (2007-2013), the FP7, Israel’s investment of 530 million Euros brought a return of 700 million (covering 370 projects initiated by Israeli industries, 410 originating in academic institutions, and several dozen in hospitals and independent think-tanks). Fully 45% of Israeli research and development in all fields—ranging from biotechnology, hi-tech, environment, security, health, space science, communications and agriculture to, yes, the humanities and social sciences) has been funded in recent years through these agreements.

This week Israel is set to begin negotiations over participation in the next phase of the European R&D agreement, entitled Horizon 2020. The government is now seriously considering withdrawing from this framework: it is not willing to abide by the latest European guidelines, which prohibit grants to individuals and institutions operating beyond the Green Line (although in the past Israel has acceded, among others, to the rules of origin precluding settlement products from trade arrangements). Israel has the right to refuse to cooperate with the new directives. But this is a clear example of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Should it do so, the price it will pay is way beyond the possible loss of 400 million Euros in research funds. At stake are cooperative projects with the foremost innovators in the industrial world, access to over 20 billion in funds and investments and the entire future of Israeli scientific development in the foreseeable future. Such an eventuality will bring about the collapse of the foundation stones that have made Israel into the start-up nation.

A sober look at Israel’s educational priorities leads, sadly, to one conclusion: that the pearl in the crown of Israel’s achievements over the years is literally on the verge of disintegration. This situation can—and must—be reversed. Skewed educational priorities and distorted policies that favor settlements over productive creativity are fast leading to a catastrophe of monumental proportions. It is in Israel’s hands to alter this course. This is all about education in the broadest sense of the term: knowledge which is the mainstay for the construction and maintenance of a healthy and flourishing society.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.