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Free College Tuition for American Jews

If Israel wants to capture the hearts and minds of young American Jews (and their parents), here’s how

Liel Leibovitz
October 28, 2019
Photo: Wikipedia
The Technion campus on Mount Carmel, HaifaPhoto: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia
The Technion campus on Mount Carmel, HaifaPhoto: Wikipedia

As American universities continue to grow increasingly hostile to Jewish students, and as Jewish philanthropists and community leaders seem largely unable to effectively meet this torrent of bigotry or to educate a new generation of American Jewish leaders who can, it’s time for Jewish American students and their families to radically rethink their choices when it comes to higher education. Here’s one crazy idea: Send our best and brightest to college in Israel.

Think of it as the next Birthright—but instead of the earthy pleasures of canoodling on Bedouin tent night, applicants will get some more practical and lasting advantages, starting with a free education. In a country where student debt is already a huge political issue, free college tuition is a way for the American Jewish community and the State of Israel to deliver on the gauziest promises of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to their own youth.

What could better appeal to young American Jews of all political leanings and persuasions than that? It should also appeal to parents who are paying upwards of $70,000 a year to send their children to universities where they are being turned into progressive piñatas in a bankrupt system where ideological indoctrination has largely replaced the teaching of history, literature and political philosophy.

Why Israel? Because it’s Israel, of course. And because, as my friend Dan Perry noted in a recent column, while the quality of Israeli higher education is excellent—virtually all of the country’s universities made it to the top 500 list of the world’s finest—tuition at most Israeli schools still remains blissfully affordable. For $3,000—which, incidentally, is almost precisely what it costs to fly a single person for a weeklong Birthright romp—you can enjoy a full year of education at any Israeli university.

Serious Jewish philanthropists should do the math here, and realize that it works for all involved—even at the higher prices paid by international students at Israeli universities, and with some extra Hebrew language support thrown in. Funders get to invest in a far more profoundly meaningful experience than a few days on a tour bus, and Jewish families get a free college ride worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, which would otherwise come directly out of their bank accounts, or else be added to crushing mountains of student debt.

What are the numbers exactly? Sponsoring 1,000 qualified American Jewish students per year for a four-year ride to an Israeli college, at a cost of $15,000 per student per annum, comes out to roughly $60 million a year once this imagined program is up to speed—which is roughly the cost that international donors currently pay to support their share of Birthright. Practically speaking, that means five or six philanthropists or family foundations willing to commit to spend roughly $10 million a year for 10 years to help guarantee a viable and meaningful future for the American Jewish community.

As far as Israel is concerned, the timing for such an initiative would appear to be eerily perfect: Israel’s Council for Higher Education has just announced a Study in Israel initiative that seeks to double the number of international students studying at Israeli universities from the current 12,000 to 24,000, in part by adding additional English-language courses and infrastructure. An infusion of 4,000 American students enrolled in four-year college programs would take them one-third of the way to meeting the stated goal of 12,000 new international students in a single leap.

But the significance of an initiative like this far transcends any individual bottom line, whether familial, communal, institutional, or national. Instead, it will give American Jews the two things that we need the most: A sense of clarity, and a sense of community.

When we send our sons and daughters to fend for themselves in institutions increasingly committed to reviling so many of the ideas we hold dear—from our affinity with Israel, to our desires to be judged on our merits as individuals rather than consigned to hierarchically arranged bins based on skin color and ethnicity, to our embrace of our own timeless religious traditions and practices—we are effectively asking them to choose between the world they left behind at home and the one they’ve entered on campus. We admit, some of us more openly than others, that to make the most out of Vassar or Berkeley or NYU, it’s best to take off that yarmulke and nod politely as some tenured radical thunders on about Israel being an apartheid state and harvesting the organs of Palestinian prisoners. It’s better to be quiet, and receive your diploma.

This duality too many of us are forced to embody—be a Jew in your dorm room and a progressive on campus—is bad for the mind, the heart, and the soul. It’s confusing, and dispiriting, and anxiety-provoking–which is hardly the recipe for a good education, or a purposeful and fulfilling life, Jewish or not.

In Israel, even American Jews who are critical of the government’s policies will have a chance to examine the intricate reality of life in a Jewish state firsthand. They will learn some Hebrew—never a bad pathway into Jewish culture in all its glory—and meet different people who embody different things, from the Israeli Arab studying to become a doctor to the settler woman running a women-only class on religion and sexuality. They will see how little race matters in a country where religion matters much more, and the ability to choose one’s own path in life is a hard-won miracle. In other words, they will encounter the sort of cultural and intellectual diversity that is rarely if ever found in elite American universities, where the children of the affluent are instructed in the art of washing away ancestral guilt in torrents of empty words.

And while the clarity that young American Jews will gain from studying in an environment where they are free to be themselves and learn things that have market value is precious, the benefits to our collective sense of community are even greater.

If Israel, which currently pays for a portion of the Birthright program, foots part of the bill, it will send a very important message to American Jews: The Jewish state isn’t simply an inherited drag on your ambitions, and a threat to your sense of personal comfort. It cares for you, and it provides for you—in ways that the American government, or the Democratic Party, or your local Jewish communal organization do not. You and your parents just saved $300,000 thanks to Israel, and you’ve earned a top-notch education to boot. It’s the idea of klal Yisrael embodied: Jews look out for Jews.

And so, rather than convene panels on the strenuous relations between Israel and the diaspora or write tremulous op-eds about the leftward drift of the Democrats and what it means for Jews, it would be nice to see some concrete action. For about $60 million a year, paid for by whatever combination of generous American benefactors and the Israeli government, we can send a cadre of about 1,000 American Jewish students to Israel each year, each one of whom can serve as a human bridge that will help bring our two worlds closer together.

Some of them may want to make aliya, serve in the army and marry an Israeli and strengthen the interfamilial bonds between the two Jewish communities in the most direct ways possible. A majority will hopefully return to America after four years of college in Israel, speaking fluent Hebrew and able to form a powerful core for the next generation of American Jewish communal leadership. Some may return after a year or two, or four, and continue their education in an American college, equipped to face whatever awaits them there. But all of them will get to know Israel like few young American Jews know it now—and, just as important, introduce American Judaism to an Israeli society largely ignorant of its beauty and richness. The benefits for Israel of an engaged and active partnership with a cadre of tens of thousands of Hebrew-speaking American Jews are as obvious as the dangers of finding out that there is no one to return your phone calls.

Birthright was a good first date; now it’s time for the relationship between American and Israeli Jews to take the next logical step.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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