Page last updated at 07:33 GMT, Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Israeli lecturers give train talks to commuters

Professor Isaiah Gafni
A boring journey flies by with a history lecture from an expert

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Modiin, Israel

"I'm not nervous, but I hope I won't feel nauseous," joked Professor Isaiah Gafni, as he prepared to deliver his slightly unusual lecture.

But once the commuters were settled, he gripped an upholstered seat back with one hand, two weighty tomes in the other, and launched with gusto into his exposition of the documentary evidence of the Maccabean Jewish revolt in the 2nd Century BC.

Few of the passengers on the 0905 train from Modiin to Tel Aviv were expecting this.

But most seemed willing to hear out the historian, as he re-examined the story, taught in Israeli kindergartens and schools, of the Jewish rebellion that is commemorated in the festival of Hannukah.

'Crazy idea'

Lecturers "on the rails" is an initiative launched recently by Hebrew University in Jerusalem to bring academia to the general public. History is just one of the subjects being covered.

Miriam Rappaport [r] listens to the history lecture
It gave us new things to think about
Miriam Rappaport
Maths teacher

"In the past few years there were big governmental budget cuts on higher education," explained university spokeswoman Orit Sulitzeanu.

"We think that the public in Israel, and the government, don't always understand enough why higher education is important, what research is and who the researchers are," she added.

"At first I thought it was crazy, like so many ideas that come out of the university," says Prof Gafni.

"But the more I thought about it, the more I realised it does make sense.

"We want to spread the word of higher education. You can go to politicians, or the parliament, and ask for more support, or you can go to the man on the street."

'Nice talk'

Trains, he added, offered a cross-section of society - his audience included a hairdresser, a bartender, an artist and a group of scuffling 14-year-olds.

Adam [l] listens to the history lecture
He talked real nice, though he talked pretty fast

One man fell asleep - though he said he was tired, not bored - and a few moved carriage. But most responded with enthusiasm.

"Lovely… it gave us new things to think about," said maths teacher Miriam Rappaport, "and anyway, it's boring on the train."

"He talked real nice, though he talked pretty fast," said a secondary school student who gave his name as Adam, though he said it had not changed his opinion that there were "better things to do" than study at university.

The lecture itself, delivered in Hebrew, looked at the story of the uprising of the Jewish Maccabees against the Greek-cultured Seleucid Empire, a narrative that feeds into both Jewish and Israeli identity.

Prof Gafni said his main aim was to make people aware that "common knowledge is often what has been propagated over the generations by a whole series of different manipulators".

In other words, people who tell the familiar tale may not know the whole story.

Delivered in the week of Hannukah and starting at the town now built on the area where the ancient rebellion is thought to have begun, the lecture offered "a certain resonance of past and present", said Prof Gafni.

"It showed us history is subjective, not just what you learn in kindergarten," said earth science student Alon Shahan, pleased he had missed the previous train, allowing him to hear the talk.

Popular appeal

Although Israel is known for its research and innovation in some areas, particularly science, universities have been pressuring the government to reverse cuts that have reduced state funding by 20% in recent years.

But a report by the state comptroller earlier this year accused higher education institutions of mismanagement and a lack of transparency.

The lectures have been chosen for popular appeal. The first was on love letters by Albert Einstein - offering with it a very literal experience of the often-used example of a car and train travelling at different speeds to explain the theory of relativity.

Other topics planned for the coming weeks including climate change and the human brain.

In the adjacent coach, some passengers listened to MP3 players, fiddled on phones, joked with each other or tapped away on laptops.

But there wasn't complete disdain for higher education; electrical engineering student Asaf Poran was frantically doing his homework, as the train sped towards his stop - Tel Aviv University.

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