University Under Siege

Prof. Rivka Carmi visits the camp for children of university employees during operation "Protective Edge" Photograph © Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (via Facebook).
Prof. Rivka Carmi visits the camp for children of university employees during operation “Protective Edge” Photograph © Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (via Facebook).

by David Newman

The emergency recruitment of over 50,000 reservists has disrupted the lives of many Israelis. Beyond the personal tragedies of the wounded and the dead, three groups in particular have been affected. The self-employed businessmen and shop owners who have nobody to fill their place while they are on reserve duty; the parents, especially mothers, of small children in the south of the country, whose summer camp and kindergarten activities have been stopped; and the tens of thousands of students who were in the middle of their end-of-year examinations as they were called up.

Once this bitter conflict in Gaza has ended and the reservists are free to return to civilian life, it will not be simple just to take up their lives at the point where they stopped a few weeks previously. War has its own psychological and traumatic impacts, especially on those who have been involved in front-line combat, have seen their friends wounded and killed, and have also witnessed the terrible civilian casualties which have been inflicted upon the other side. Whether or not the army could, with more care, have avoided the civilian casualties in places such as schools and hospitals which were used by Hamas to hide weapons, no one involved can remain unaffected by the scenes of destruction, scenes which for many will remain ingrained in their memory for a long time to come.

The country’s universities are already planning for the “day after,” the day when the hostilities cease, the reservists are released back to civilian life, and life has to somehow get back to normal. Some students will find it difficult just to take up their studies and examinations at the point they stopped, as though the intervening weeks have not impacted their lives in a much more significant way.

While the universities will go out of their way to offer assistance, even personal therapy, there will be some who will be unable to cope in the long run and may drop out altogether, or may require a years’ break and breathing space before they feel able to resume their studies at the point they left off. We hope that this will be but a small minority but we cannot ignore the longer-term implications of what it means for someone to be suddenly pulled out of civilian life, placed into a combat situation, and then just as suddenly lay down his weapons and be expected to resume his life as though nothing of significance had happened.

Unlike the country’s other universities, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has experienced a much harder time. While the other universities have continued with their normal research, teaching and examination activities during this period, Ben-Gurion University, like other public places in Beersheba and the towns of the south most affected by the daily rain of missiles, was completely shut down for the past month and will continue to be shut until it is clear that the missile threat has ceased.

The university does not lack safe spaces, underground shelters and corridors in which to take refuge from the missiles. But the university administration could not take the chance that a single missile would penetrate the Iron Dome anti-missile system and explode in a classroom containing tens, maybe hundreds, of students taking their examination. The university correctly opted for a safety-first strategy, rather than endanger the university community, despite the psychological importance of normal life carrying on as much as possible, as it has done throughout most of the country.

Many of the administrative staff were unable to come to work. As the summer camps and kindergartens were also shut down by the municipality, parents had no choice but to stay home with their kids rather than come to work, leaving some departmental offices unmanned for both students and faculty. For a short period, university students and staff, in an act of communal solidarity which always repeats itself at such times, teamed up to provide their own university-based summer camps where parents could bring their children while they went to their offices, but even this was deemed too risky once the war intensified and the numbers of missiles fired at the city increased.

There is an eerie mid-summer silence about the campus.

Not that Ben-Gurion campus is ever very busy during the summer months. Many of the faculty live in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and don’t set foot south of Kastina between the months of July to October. Most of the students leave the city for the summer to find vacation jobs or simply return home to the more lively center of the country. The summer is always a period where those of us remaining on campus can engage in our research and writing in a quiet atmosphere, without too many external distractions.

But this time the silence is different. We work in the knowledge that, amid the silence, a sudden siren will herald the firing of another rocket in the direction of Beersheva.

Some will take an irresponsible attitude and simply go on working, while others will run to the nearest shelter to wait for the explosion before returning to their offices. And this is repeated, at irregular intervals, throughout the day.

The university management convenes a daily meeting early each morning to assess the situation, to send updates to the university community about the security risks, opening hours for the library which remains without readers, operation of the cafeterias which remain without customers, and the departmental offices, many of which remain without secretaries.

But the planning for next year continues unabated.

Plans have been drawn up for the day when the university is re-opened and students and staff return to their normal activities.

In those universities where everything has been functioning as normal, special rules governing the rights of those students who have been called up and have missed their examinations will have to be put into place. In the case of BGU, the entire university will have to be kick-started in a more comprehensive manner.

The universities will endeavor to find the right solutions, in the hope that everything will be back to normal in time for the commencement of the next academic year.

At BGU, we hope that it will not be necessary to delay the start of the year in late October, as has happened on previous occasions when the university has had to temporarily cease activities because of the missile threat.

My colleagues, the academic staff and faculty, must be prepared to modify and change their own plans to help meet the student requirements. It is the least that we can do in these difficult and unplanned situations. We are not always sufficiently sympathetic to student demands which disturb our own research plans and schedules. But in this case there should not be even the slightest hesitation in helping our students return to normality. It is the least they can expect.

David Newman is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post; reprinted with permission.