Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

A New ‘University’ in Israel: Great, Good, and Bad News

This week Israel officially granted University status to the Herzliyah Inter-Disciplinary Center (IDC), to be now called Reichman University, in honor of its founder Prof. Uriel Reichman. Not just another institution of higher learning, but Israel’s first-ever private university, not dependent on government subsidies. There’s a lot of good news here – and one piece of bad news.

First, the really good news. In less than 30 years, the IDC has managed to gather in its midst a very large number of top-rate scholars – researchers and lecturers. I personally know several and they are all well-respected professors in their field. The students are getting among the best that Israel has to offer; indeed, many of them – with tenure – left their “home” universities in Israel to teach at the IDC. So there’s no issue of “quality” here; the newly named Reichman University (RU) competes well with Israel’s other universities in scholarship.

Second, the pretty good news – although many will disagree with me on this. As mentioned, RU is private. This essentially means that most of it students will come from the better off segments of Israeli society (for the discussion here, I will ignore another IDC contribution: it was the first Israeli institution of higher learning to make serious efforts to have overseas students do a complete B.A. or M.A. in Israel, taught in English). To be sure, a private university is somewhat jarring in social-democratic Israel that still prefers to see itself as adhering to an egalitarian ethic. However, as long as Israel enables even students from the lowest socio-economic stratum to study (and there are plenty of such scholarships to go around), this shouldn’t be a reason to stop wealthier students from some form of public/private choice (Israel’s public university tuition is laughably low by world standards: about $3500 a year – for only three years). After all, there are those who can afford cars and others who have to use public transport – are we to stop that differentiation too? In short, virtually every other western country has such a two-track system of higher education; Israel need not be any different.

And now for the bad news. There’s a reason we call such institutions “university” – because they are designed to provide study in a very wide range of subject areas. Perhaps not “universal” in totality, but certainly at the least incorporating the major fields of human knowledge. Indeed, that’s exactly why two of the very best, world-class institutions in Israel are not called universities: the Weizmann INSTITUTE of Science, and the Technion – Israel INSTITUTE of Technology. They specialize in a very few fields (and do that exceedingly well!), but because of this “narrow” purview, they are not “universities.”

It is here that RU fails. It offers only nine disciplines – none in the Humanities (!), and none in the Physical Sciences (!!). All these nine departments share one common denominator – they are very popular, vocational areas of learning: Law, Business, Government, Communications, Economics, Entrepeneurship, Psychology, Sustainability, and Computer Science. Of course, there’s nothing at all wrong with teaching something popular and useful (quite the opposite), and these disciplines are taught by most other universities. However, such students will not receive any broad perspective on the world or even their own field of study. No history, no philosophy, no archeology, no literature & the arts, no “Physics for Poets” nor any other rudimentary understanding of any other hard science.

The real “culprit” here is not RU but Israel’s Council of Higher Education (that has to license any new university or even department) – and to a large extent, Israeli society that has become overly “utilitarian” minded: almost the only thing that counts for Israelis today is a good livelihood, even if the student/citizen turns out to have no intellectual breadth or depth. Unfortunately, this is a long way from the glory years of the Life of Spirit that so characterized the early years of the state, one that in large part was a product of the Jewish heritage.

From a broad historical perspective (there is no direct “connection” here), it is ironic but altogether “fitting” that the IDC has become a university the same summer that Israel got its first successful businessman Prime Minister (Naftali Bennett)! The “Start-Up” nation has proven that it has a brain (and so has the IDC); what both need now is a bit more intellectual “heart” – what makes life (not just a livelihood) worth living.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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