The academic year for Israel’s universities will not begin until after those who have been called up for IDF reserve duty during the ongoing war against Hamas begin to be released from their service, and is unlikely to start before early December, the universities announced Tuesday.
“The winter semester will begin in all research universities when those called up for reserve duty begin to be released, but not before December 3, 2023,” the Committee of University Heads said in a statement.
They added that a two-week notice will be given for studies to begin.
“Right now we have set our target date as the 3rd of December, realizing that even if everything ends tomorrow, we need time to prepare our campuses for studies,” Ben Gurion University of the Negev president Prof. Daniel Chamovitz, who is part of the committee, told The Times of Israel.
Acknowledging the open-ended nature of the decision, Chamovitz said, “we didn’t want to give a set date, [because] it’s very difficult to say, but on the other hand we want to give some idea of clarity for the students.” By starting December 3, days before Hanukkah begins, the schools will have a chance to have two complete semesters and a summer session.
Chamovitz stressed that it will not be business as usual at the universities, as students and staff will be dealing with the aftereffects of the war and associated trauma.
The fall semester, which was slated to start October 15, was previously delayed until November 5. Among the 360,000 IDF reservists who have been called up, the largest figure in Israeli history, are thousands of staff and students, according to the university heads. About 30% of all university students are among those now serving.
The university system, despite the delay, will still aim to complete a full academic year of two semesters, with university presidents anticipating that the second semester will therefore continue into the summer though universities will have autonomy in what they do.
Ben Gurion University, based in Beersheba, “has been more affected” than other universities by the crisis, Chamovitz stressed. “A lot of our students and employees lived in the western Negev [near Gaza].” Some 500 families associated with the university are “now refugees,” said Chamovitz, who has made numerous mourning calls.
“Every university was affected by the party,” he added, referring to the Hamas assault on the Nova dance party early on October 7, which saw hundreds dead and captured, many of them college-age.
“We have a number of students who are known to be hostages, and these are things we will have to deal with at the start of the school year. At the same time, the university has organized all of its resources and manpower… to make sure we have the facilities to provide social, financial, psychological and financial services for our specific community,” he said.
With no classes at the moment, the Ben Gurion campus is currently serving as a home for evacuees and logistical center, and providing services for citizens and many more activities. It will therefore take a while to ready the campus for academic learning again, a university official explained.
Despite the delayed school year, universities with programs for foreign students have the option of beginning earlier using distance learning, but that decision “is made individually for each institution, according to the situation,” the committee spokesperson said.
Some programs, such as the Rothman International School at the Hebrew University and the Lowy International School at Tel Aviv University, have already begun their academic year using remote learning.
“The decision to continue Rothberg International School’s operations through distance learning was made to ensure that international students could maintain their study routines during uncertain times. While some international students may have left during the war, we recognize the importance of providing stability in their academic pursuits while staying in Israel. Distance learning helps us achieve this goal and support their educational experience,” the Hebrew University said in a statement to The Times of Israel.
About 4,000 Hebrew University students and faculty members have been called up for reserve duty, the university said. “We are committed to supporting our newly recruited students in various ways, such as providing financial assistance, tutoring, help with course material completion, extensions for deadlines, and more. Regarding payments, the university will delay the collection of tuition fees until a later date this year.”