Chicago students skip the BDS, see Israel firsthand

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Click photo to download. Caption: Tel Aviv University and University of Chicago workshop participants outside the Knesset in Israel. Credit: Ronen Shnidman.

WithinweeksofMarch’sstudent-runconferenceadvocatingfor a “one-statesolution”totheIsraeli-PalestinianconflictatHarvard University’sKennedySchoolofGovernment,agroupofAmericanpublicpolicystudentsarrivedinIsraelforaverydifferentkindofworkshop.

Thefourgraduatestudents—none of them Jewish—fromtheUniversityofChicago’sHarrisSchoolofPublicPolicyparticipatedinathree-dayexchangeprogramtomeetwithIsraelis who have helped shape thecountry’sdomesticpolicy.Theworkshopwasorganizedaspartof a seven-year-oldpartnership betweenTelAvivUniversity’sDepartmentofPublicPolicyandtheHarrisSchool.

Alternatingfromyeartoyear,therespectiveuniversitieshostvisitingstudentsfromtheirpartnerinstitutiontolearnmoreabouteachcountry’sgovernment, publicsectorinstitutions and major social issues.AmongthepeoplestudentsspokewithwereformerInteriorMinisterandpastLaborParty MK OphirPines,summertentprotestleaderYuvalBdolach,andthedeputymanageroftheresearchdivisionattheBankofIsraelDr.MichelStrawczynki.

Two weeks earlier at Harvard, 20radicalleft-wingspeakers discussing thepracticalstepsforimplementingaone-statesolutioninIsraelandthePalestinianterritories—provokingafirestormof controversy that led KennedySchoolDeanDavidEllwood to issue a statement denyingthatHarvard’sfinancialsupportfortheconference was an endorsement of its politicalagenda.

YetinIsrael,theHarvard conferencewasbarelynoticedandtheimpactofthebroader,ongoingBoycott,Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)campaign to delegitimize Israel hasbeenquiteminimal,accordingtothechairmanofTelAvivUniversity’sDepartmentofPublicPolicy,Prof.EranYashiv.

“AsfarasIknowtherehasbeennoeffect[fromtheboycottcampaign],” Yashiv told JointMedia News Service. “Usuallyboycott effortscomeupfromtheUKandEuropealthoughtheBDScampaigndoesn’tseemtohaveprogressedverymuch...WestillreceivedelegationsfromEuropeandelsewhereandIamnotawareofanyboycotteffortsdirectedatTelAvivUniversity.”

Nevertheless, thelion’sshareofattentionthatnationalsecurityconcernsreceivefrom Israeli policymakers was quickly impressed upon the visitingAmericanstudents. During adiscussion with former interior minister Ophir Pines regardingthe impact of the summertentprotests, Pines dismissed thenotionthatthe demonstrations significantlyshiftedgovernmentpriorities.

“TheprotestaffectedIsraelipoliticsbutdidn'tchangeit,” saidPines. “Thepoliticalarenaremainsverystable...WeweretalkingaboutIranbefore[theprotests],we’retalkingaboutIrannowandwewillbetalkingaboutIranlater.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Tel Aviv University and University of Chicago workshop participants at a Jaffa overlook. The Chicago students visited Israel to study social issues. Credit: Ronen Shnidman.

One policy message presentedtotheHarrisSchooldelegation during their tripwasthatthestatusquowithinIsrael is untenableforreasonshavinglittletodowithGazaandtheWestBank, but more so the demographictransitionofIsraelisociety.

Approximatelyhalfoftoday’sprimaryschool-agechildreninIsraelcomefromeithertheIsraeliAraborultra-Orthodoxharedisectorsofthepopulation, comprising28and20percentoftheprimaryschoolstudentpopulation,respectively,accordingtofindingspresentedtothestudentsbyExecutiveDirectorProf.DanBen-Davidofthenon-partisanTaubCenter think tank.

Ben-David displayed international comparative academic performance test scoresforIsraeli Arabstudentsthatshowedthemperformingatalevelbelowthethird-worldaverage. Haredistudentsdonotevenstudythecorecurriculumsubjects these tests encompass andtherefore donottake the exams,said Ben-David.ThegroupdiscussionwentontocoverthelackofparticipationinnationalservicebytheArabandharedisectorsandthe low employment ratesofArabwomenandharedimen.Themessage,saidBen-David,was that thedecliningIsraeliwelfarestatecouldnotcontinuesupportingboth of those societal sectorsandaffordtomaintainafirst-ratearmyformorethananotherdecade.

Bothcenter-leftpoliticians, Independence MK EinatWilfandPinestookparticularumbrageatthemajorityoftheharedipopulation’sreceiptofgovernmentbenefits,avoidanceofnationalobligationsandlackofproductiveemployment.

“InIsrael,onethirdofthepopulationworks,onethirdpaystaxesandonethirdservesinthearmy,butitisthesameonethird,” saidWilf,recountinganoldlocaljokeforthevisitingstudents.Sheadvocated for lettingtheentireultra-orthodoxcommunity “separate” themselvesfrommainstreamIsraelisocietyinreturnforgivingupallclaimstostatebenefits.

ArnonMentover—theIsraeliCEOofthe American Jewish JointDistributionCommittee (JDC)—countered Wilf’s comments by pointing that overthe14yearsduringwhich JDC’s Tevet employment program hasbeeninoperation,the program hashelpedover15,000people, among themharedimandIsraeliArabs,findgainfulemployment.

TevetassistsmembersofmarginalizedcommunitieswithinIsraelintegrateintotheworkforce. JDC believesthatbygraduallygainingthetrustandcooperationofharedirabbisandtheircommunities,progresscan bemadeontheissueofintegratingharedimintoIsraelisociety, Mentoversaid.

“I’mnotapoliticianandIdon’twanttodirectlyaddressthecommentsofpoliticiansseekingtostirupcontroversyonthisissue,” Mentover said in a phone interview with JointMedia News Service. “However,thesocioeconomicanalysisofsituationisthatitisadifficulttrend.”

TheproblemMentoveremphasizedwasnotthatsomeharedimchosetospendtheiradultliveslearningTorahinsteadofservinginthearmyandworking,butthattherehasbeenadisproportionategrowthinthenumberofsuch life-long learnersovertheyears.

“Asasecularperson,Ithinktheideaofthetalmidchachamshouldexistandbesupported,” saidMentover. “Thebestandbrightestofthesestudentsshouldn’thavetoserveinthearmy,buttheynumberinthefewhundredormaybeathousand.Talentedpeopleshouldbeabletocontinueontheirpaths[withoutservinginthearmy].”

Overall, the Chicago students likely returned home with a better understanding of major social issues in Israel. Yet, while topics relating to the anti-Israel conference that took place at their fellow elite American university—Harvard—were certainly not the focus of their trip, those often ubiquitous topics were not entirely ignored. Even during a talk by Wilf focusing on the Israeli educational system, the Knesset member highlighted the importance she placed on efforts to combat the delegitimization of the Jewish state.

“Israel today is engaged in a [existential] battle that is much more intellectual than physical,” said Wilf. “What we are seeing is continuation of the war against Israel... Now the battle has shifted towards undermining the intellectual and moral rationale of the state.”

Posted on May 7, 2012 and filed under Features, Israel, U.S..