WITH the tragic death at the age of 55 of Professor Yoram Ben- Porath, President of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel has not only lost an outstanding educationist but a brilliant economist with vision and a profound social conscience.
The Ben-Porath family were on holiday for the joyful Jewish festival of Succot (Tabernacles) when their car was hit by a truck. The professor, his wife Dr Yael Cohen Ben-Porath and their five-year- old son, Yahali, all died.
A professor of economics who had obtained a doctorate at Harvard, Ben-Porath specialised in the vexed problems of the Israeli economy. But his rise within a university noted in the past not only for high standards and a liberal policy towards Arab and immigrant students but to a degree of rivalry between leading administrators was steady and deserved. After obtaining his bachelor's and master's degrees at the university he became a member of the faculty in 1967. Twenty years later he became rector, moving to the presidency only two years ago.
The Presidency of the Hebrew University is one of the toughest posts in Israeli academia. Expanded and developed since the Mount Scopus buildings were re- occupied after the 1967 war, the university now serves over 20,000 students in seven major faculties. It is an enormous effort to maintain the high standards that its founders insisted on in the face of inevitable shortage of funds. A successful presidency requires a degree of diplomatic skill which a Kissinger would find hard to equal.
Aware that Israel's very existence depended on her institutes of higher learning producing outstanding graduates, with a keen desire for research and innovation, Ben-Porath insisted that, at all costs, the Hebrew University, the pride of Dr Chaim Weizmann, a noted scientist and Israel's first President, must take the lead in excellence. Almost as important in his eyes was to use the university in the mammoth task of absorbing new immigrants, especially from the former Soviet Union and from Ethiopia. In neither of these tasks had the former government of Yitshak Shamir covered itself with glory and the sight of Russian graduates scavenging for food in the markets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv caused revulsion in the country, and outspoken criticism by the British- educated President Chaim Herzog.
The untimely death of Yoram Ben-Porath is a particular blow because he had tried to lead the institution, recovering from economic difficulties, into a period of academic development. Under his leadership the university had stabilised its financial situation and had begun preparing for the coming new century.
Ben-Porath's wife Yael was herself a notable university figure, and a lecturer in logic in the philosophy department. She was about to complete her law studies at the age of 42.Reuse content